By: Sabrina Rodriguez
Almost a year after the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties, a growing number of lawmakers from both parties are pushing to gut a Cold-War era law that gives Cuban migrants fast-track permanent residency and welfare benefits.
The White House insists it doesn’t plan to touch the 50-year-old Cuban Adjustment Act, even as it encourages Congress to lift the longstanding U.S. embargo on communist-led Cuba. But lawmakers and some foreign leaders say President Barack Obama may be forced to reconsider before his term is up if the number of Cuban migrants coming through the border continues to rise.
Nearly 17,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S. in the last three months of 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security, up from 9,200 during the same period in 2014.
“Cubans seeking to come to the U.S. for asylum should be able to apply through a more normal process,” said Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who, along with Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, introduced the Correcting Unfair Benefits for Aliens Act last month.
In October, Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, put forth a similar measure, the Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act.
Farenthold, who also is co-sponsoring Gosar’s bill, said he was moved to act after hearing stories from Border Patrol agents about how many Cubans were reaching border checkpoints and saying, “Hi, I’m Cuban. Let me in.”
The Adjustment Act was passed in response to the thousands of Cuban migrants fleeing the Castro regime following the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Since then, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. have been automatically considered political refugees, without having to prove persecution. No other group of asylum seekers receives such preference.
The Cuban government is standing by its decades-old position that the policy should end, criticizing the incentive it creates for Cubans to risk their lives to reach the U.S.
As of 2013, there were more than 1.1 million Cuban immigrants in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. Most have been able to take advantage of the Act to claim residency, making Cubans one of the 10 largest immigrant groups in the U.S. since 1970.
But as the years have flown by, it’s become clear that many of the Cubans who come to the United States are seeking economic opportunities, not necessarily fleeing political oppression. A 2015 Sun-Sentinel investigation in Florida found that a number of Cuban immigrants abuse benefits by collecting welfare checks while still traveling to and from Cuba.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica also is urging Obama to change the law amid a spike in the number of Cuban migrants trapped along its borders as they try to reach the U.S. Those Cubans are taxing Central American governments’ resources as they rush to reach the U.S. partly out of fear the law will be repealed before they get their shot at life in America.
The Costa Rican government is expected to send a letter to Obama this week urging him to change the law.
The Cuban Adjustment Act “constitutes a perverse incentive for migrations and favors the conditions for human trafficking,” Manuel González Sanz, foreign minister of Costa Rica, said in a statement this month. “The truth of the matter is that it [the migration] is the product of an outdated legislation that exists in the United States, a product of the Cold War, that has no reason to be from our point of view.”
From November to March, the Costa Rican government helped pay for a group of almost 8,000 Cubans fly to El Salvador and take buses to go through Guatemala to Mexico. Those migrants had been traveling through Costa Rica, but were stranded at the border with Nicaragua because they did not have necessary entry permits.
In December, Costa Rica announced it would not offer passage to any more Cuban migrants. Another 1,200 Cubans are stranded in Panama, trying to get into Costa Rica, but González said the country cannot let them in.
Since Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in late 2014 that the two countries would set aside their decades of estrangement, the U.S. has taken numerous steps to, as Obama puts it, “cut loose the shackles of the past.”
But when it comes to the laws on Cuban migrants, the Obama administration has no plans for change. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would keep supporting “safe, legal and orderly migration” from Cuba to the U.S. and fully implement current policy.
The administration’s decision not to announce support for repealing or amending the law likely stems from worries that if it did so before the change was finalized, the number of Cubans rushing to the U.S. will leap even higher, Cuba analysts say.
“They’re not saying it because we all know it’s going to cause a huge migration crisis,” said Ailynn Torres, a researcher at the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute for Research on Culture in Havana. “Cubans adjusted their expectations the moment the administration announced it would normalize relations, even if the administration swears the Act isn’t on the agenda.”
“It’s politically delicate, and it needs to be treated as such,” Torres said.
Some argue that it’s unfair to stop helping Cubans seeking asylum so long as the U.S. keeps its embargo on the island nation, and that both issues should be dealt with at once. The Obama administration has used executive action to poke holes in the embargo, but, although Democrats are largely on board and a growing number of Republicans are amenable to the idea, there’s not yet enough momentum in Congress to formally lift it.
Both Farenthold and Gosar hint that they’d be supportive of lifting the embargo, but say the immigration issue should be dealt with first. They argue that Cubans should not be given preference in migration in part because it encourages more to leave Cuba.
Noting that Obama visited Cuba in March, Farenthold said “a lot will be dictated” by what the president chooses to do now that he’s seen the island country.
“Congress needs to have a say in this, but if past history says anything, Congress isn’t going to have the input it should,” the Republican said.
Gosar’s bill has 12 Republican co-sponsors from 10 states, and generally speaking, it’s been Republicans who have been calling for a repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act. However, a number of Democrats also say it might be time to revisit or somehow amend the bill.
Gosar said the issue could get greater attention from the presidential candidates if the number of migrants rises. It could prove an especially sensitive issue because Florida is a swing state in presidential elections.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the few Republicans who early on supported the reestablishment of ties with Cuba, also has indicated support for a new approach to Cuban migrants. "That's going to have to be revisited and just about everybody recognizes that." he said in a March interview with the Reason Foundation.
Largely absent from the conversation are Cuban-American lawmakers, who have not made up their minds on how to deal with the full Act and instead are chipping away at refugee welfare assistance following the Sun-Sentinel investigation.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican, has introduced a bill to reform refugee welfare assistance, but his office said he is not working on any Cuban Adjustment Act-specific legislation.
Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio this month urged Congress to remove welfare benefits for recently arrived Cubans, but he failed to garner enough support to add the change to a bill that was on the Senate floor. The Florida senator, who vehemently opposed Obama’s decision to restore ties with Havana, also specified that it was not a call to repeal the Act.
The “Miami Cuban delegation has no desire to cooperate with President Obama,” said David Abraham, an immigration and citizenship law professor at the University of Miami. “Any movement on the Act would look like a surrender. They won’t do it even if they’re tired of it and it doesn’t serve their interests.”
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an advocacy group, said the discussions are a sign of how much the debate over whether to reestablish ties with Cuba has shifted toward acceptance of having a relationship.
“It’s this slow march forward. It’s just about the speed of the change now,” Williams said.