Time to end special privileges for Cuban immigrants

January 6, 2015

Cuban refugees hold up empty jugs as they beg for water while floating on the high seas in home-made..            

President Barack Obama has taken initial steps toward overhauling the broken U.S. immigration system and failed Cuba policy. It is also time to bring Washington’s Cuban immigration policy in line with other foreign-born people. Cubans enjoy unique immigration privileges that are no longer justifiable.

Since Fidel Castro seized power in Havana in 1959, Cubans who reach the United States without immigration visas have been given a path to citizenship. For the past 20 years, they have been guaranteed immigration visas not offered other foreigners.

U.S. presidents and Congress have also given Cuban immigrants rights offered no others. The policy was initially devised to sap the Cuban regime of its talented citizens and highlight these Cubans’ preference for capitalist democracy over communism.

Cuban Premier Fidel Castro gestures to the members of the media shortly after his arriving at Carras..

During the Cold War, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson admitted Cubans fleeing the Communist regime with temporary visas or visa waivers not offered any other foreign nationals. Then, in 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which entitled Cubans who reached U.S. shores to temporary parole status and, a year later, to permanent legal residency with a path to citizenship.

Congress designed this bill to apply only to the 165,000 Cubans who had taken refuge in the United States and whose immigration status was in limbo. The legislation, however, had no expiration date. So it has been applied for nearly 50 years to new arrivals from Cuba and about half-million Cubans have benefitted since 1966. There are no “undocumented” Cubans in the United States.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton gave Cubans yet another unique immigration privilege. He signed a bilateral accord with the Cuban government guaranteeing that the U.S. consular service in Havana would issue no fewer than 20,000 immigration visas yearly to Cubans. No other foreign-born people enjoy such a guarantee.

While giving preference to family reunification, the agreement specifies that a minority of visas are reserved for victims of persecution. Clinton signed this new example of Cuban exceptionalism, post-Cold War, when Cuba was no longer viewed as a security threat. He did so at a time when about 33,000 economically desperate Cuban boat people, without visas, were trying to make their way across the Florida Straits to reach the United States.

The accord, as modified in 1995, also specified that Washington and the Castro regime would collaborate to return to the island Cubans found in the Florida Straits. In principle, the agreement ended Cubans’ ability to make their way to the United States without entry visas — and thereby stripped the Cuban Adjustment Act of all meaning. With his eyes on his impending reelection bid, Clinton sought to prevent a flood of boat people comparable to the exodus in 1980, when about 125,000 Cubans reached U.S. shores. Public opposition to the boat people contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election bid that year.

US Marines search Cuban refugees as they arrive at the Guantanamo Naval Base August 27. Officials sa..

In practice, however, Cubans continue to enjoy the unique benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act. Though the U.S. Coast Guard stepped up its policing of the Florida Straits, Cubans determined to immigrate but unable to get one of the 20,000 yearly visas tried new ways to reach U.S. soil — and to qualify for the law’s privileges. Many make their way to Mexico and cross the border into the United States from there. Recently, however, they have tried again to test their luck at sea by seeking to outrun the U.S. Coast Guard. Last year, about 25,000 Cubans came by land and sea without immigration visas.

Combined with bilateral-accord entrants, a total of 40,000 Cubans immigrated last year — all gaining legal privileges. This is an extraordinary number, especially for a country of Cuba’s size.

The reason for Cuban immigration exceptionalism has changed. Domestic concerns have now replaced foreign-policy considerations. Most Cubans settle in Florida, the largest political swing state. Because Cuban-Americans are well organized and have votes to deliver, Congress and recent presidents have been reluctant to retract immigration privileges that the Cuban-American community favors. For more than four decades, Cuban-Americans have supported their immigration entitlements and defended them when threatened.

Nonetheless, Florida’s Cuban-American members of Congress have begun to speak out against the 1966 law. They do not advocate ending it. Rather, they wish to limit its application to genuine refugees — Cubans whom they know will comply with what they call the “personal embargo,” an informal, unofficially sanctioned ban on travel to the island.

Genuine refugees comply because they fear persecution if they return to their homeland. Yet refugees need not rely on the Cuban Adjustment Act to move to the United States. They may officially qualify for some of the 20,000 annual Cuban entry slots, as well as for general refugee-immigration slots.

The Cuban-American politicians primarily represent the concerns of Cubans who emigrated during the Cold War, fleeing the Castro regime for political reasons. Many of these Cuban-Americans view travel to Cuba as a violation of the broader embargo they continue to support and want respected.

American and Cuban flags are waved at Miami's Orange Bowl Stadium as thousands of Cuban-Americans pa..

In contrast, most post-Cold War arrivals, like most immigrants, come to the United States to pursue the economic American Dream.  They want to visit family they left behind. Each year, as members of the older generation die, these younger Cubans comprise an ever-larger portion of the Cuban-American community. More Cubans immigrated in the first decade of this century than in any previous decade.

The new Cubans oppose the U.S.-Cuba people-to-people embargo that the Cold War émigrés continue to defend. Each year, hundreds of thousands of them take advantage of Obama’s new policies to visit relatives on the island. Obama’s travel opening is based on the assumption that the Cuban-born in the United States are immigrants, not refugees.

In Washington’s overhauled Cuba immigration policy, Cubans should have the same rights as other foreign-born immigrants — no more, no less. The minority who seek refuge from persecution qualify for admission independent of the Cuban Adjustment Act and independent of Clinton’s bilateral immigration agreement. Their refugee rights should be protected.

Both the Cuban-American political leadership and the Obama administration have created an opening to address the outdated U.S. policy on Cuba. It is time to stop unjustly favoring Cubans above all other immigrants.


PHOTO (TOP): Cuban refugees hold up empty jugs as they beg for water while floating on the high seas in home-made rafts about 45 miles south of Key West, August 21, 1994. REUTERS/Archive.

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Cuban Premier Fidel Castro gestures to the members of the media shortly after his arriving at Carrasco airport, in Montevideo, October 13, 1995. REUTERS/Archive

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Marines search Cuban refugees as they arrive at the Guantanamo Naval Base aboard the USS Vicksburg, after being picked up from rafts as they tried to cross from Cuba to Florida, August 27, 1994. REUTERS/Archive

PHOTO (INSERT 3): U.S. and Cuban flags are waved at Miami’s Orange Bowl Stadium as thousands of Cuban-Americans pay their respects March 2 1996 to the four “Brothers to the Rescue” pilots who were shot down by a Cuban MiG. REUTERS/Archive



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This “article” is a commercial, right? The author paid by some PAC of “older” claimants. The first “Cuban immigrants” were Spanish families who settled in Cuba not Cubans, they want the Cuba they colonized but that which was never their Cuban to start.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

Ms. Eckstein, perhaps you’re correct. Maybe it is time to end the special privileges that Cuban immigrants enjoy. But there’s a more pressing and important matter involving U.S.-Cuban relations: End the embargo on Cuban cigars!

Posted by Toomuchthinking | Report as abusive

I have often wondered how we can justify the “Wet foot – Dry foot” policy that allows Cubans who reach our shores stay and yet we denigrate any who come from Mexico, Central, and South America?

It either should be all are welcomed – or none are welcomed. What has been going on for all these years is a grave error in immigration policy.

Posted by Robert76 | Report as abusive

Can we send the mafia Cubans back? I mean, there has got to be better organizations for cocaine distribution right? Also, won’t congress be happy when the casinos and whorehouses are open again? I know we have Vegas, but the weather is a little cold and grey around the Christmas break.

By the way, why is it required that we always imply honesty in our leaders when everyone knows that isn’t true? It’s like we’re trying to argue a deep philosophical point using baby talk. Can’t we just ask the leaders how much it will cost to get a certain law? Then at least the people could take up collections and buy a few rules for themselves. Then if the people really want it they will, and this will put them at least at the same level as corporations, although, still below the fascist security state entities.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I believe the US-only embargo of Cuba has meant nothing since the old Soviet Union collapsed. It was simply a political tool used by both parties to milk campaign money from the Cuban ex-pat community and Florida’s seemingly endless supply of cold war era, blue haired retirees. As for our Cuban immigration policy, it’s been a joke since 1995. The original policy dating back to JFK was more generous — all Cubans were refugees fleeing communist hegemony and were therefore welcome by default. In 1995 I was a military intelligence officer in Key West when Clinton changed the policy to the current feet wet/feet dry one. Almost overnight cooperation between the Cuban ex-pat community and the military/coast guard community ceased. One day USCG cutters were picking up refugees floating on homemade boats/rafts and bringing them to Florida and freedom. The next they were either taking them directly back to Cuba or to a detention center in Florida until there were enough to justify a mass deportation back to Cuba. Either way, we were condemning them to imprisonment under Castro simply for seeking their freedom. “Common knowledge” in the military and Cuban ex-pat communities in Florida at the time was that Gov. Chiles told Clinton that he would not endorse his re-election run if Clinton didn’t “fix” Florida’s “Cuban Problem.” Feet Wet/Feet Dry was supposedly the “fix.”

Posted by FreddieATL | Report as abusive

Cubans in the US don’t want Americans to know they have special rights and get thousands of dollars every year from the US taxpayer. Cubans get more per person than any other immigrant – legal or illegal.

Posted by Canela | Report as abusive

Your current article normally possess alot of really up to date info. Where do you come up with this? Just stating you are very resourceful. Thanks again

Posted by Fishing Lover | Report as abusive

A round of applause for your blog.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

Posted by sms | Report as abusive

Thanks a lot for the article post.Much thanks again. Cool.

Posted by pos software naples | Report as abusive

Really informative blog article.Really thank you! Want more.

Posted by My Website 2015 | Report as abusive

Very informative article.Much thanks again. Keep writing.

Posted by Gary Lazeo | Report as abusive

I truly appreciate this post.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

Posted by sewa mobil murah di surabaya | Report as abusive