While U.S. politicians rancorously debate Syrian refugees, undocumented Mexican immigrants and Chinese “anchor babies,” a far more questionable immigration issue needs addressing: Cuba.
Now that the United States’ embargo is over, and Barack Obama this week will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Caribbean island in 88 years, it’s time we close Cubans’ E-ZPass lane to U.S. citizenship.
For the past 50 years, any Cuban who makes it to American soil has been fast-tracked to a green card, government welfare and, ultimately, citizenship. Unlike immigrants from every other nation, Cubans don’t get turned away even if they don’t have a visa.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have benefited from the policy, and Virginia has been particularly impacted. It ranks 11th among states with largest Cuban-American populations, with more than 15,000 such residents.
The Obama Administration has said the policy won’t change. But, even most Cuban-Americans agree, such unique privileges are no longer justifiable.
The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act was conceived to give U.S. asylum to approximately 300,000 Cubans who were in legal limbo after fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution. But now it’s used – and often abused – by people who can come and go, making a mockery of the law’s raison d’être.
“We’re giving political asylum [and] they’re traveling back and forth, starting businesses, going to Cuba for their dental care, for their [religious] ceremonies, for their [birthday] parties,” said Washington Post Havana correspondent Nick Miroff.
A U.S. State Department survey of visa applicants in 2009 found “overwhelmingly” that Cubans were economic migrants, not political refugees fleeing communism. Unlike any other nationality claiming asylum as refugees, Cubans need not provide proof they’ve suffered persecution.
Cuba, of course, has problems. But the situation there is not as dire as it is in many other places. I know because I took my college journalism class there in January to cover the changes underway.
There is poverty but not misery. Cubans receive free education through college, world class health care and food subsidies. Housing and transportation costs are low. Gun crime is virtually nonexistent.
The government is oppressive, but has become much more tolerant in recent years, according to a 2015 report from the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Dissidents are being persecuted less, internet access is rapidly expanding and private businesses are finally allowed.
While it’s understandable Cubans may want to leave to seek a better life, are they really more deserving than, say, Mexicans fleeing drug cartels or Syrians escaping war? Such an unfair policy makes it difficult to enforce our strict laws against unauthorized immigration.
America’s apparent vacancy sign for Cubans also has great costs.
It hurts diplomatic relations. Central American nations have been burdened by the influx of Cubans en route to the U.S.-Mexico border, said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in Latin American politics. Because of a 1995 amendment to the immigration law, Cubans must arrive by land or air for admission to the United States. Those caught on waters between the two nations are sent back home.
This had led to extensive illegal human trafficking rings within Central America – and their governments are getting tired of dealing with the consequences of a U.S. immigration policy that strains their resources while discriminating against their citizens.
LeoGrande adds that the policy also creates a “serious brain drain” in Cuba. With the cost of getting smuggled in at $10,000 per person, many of those leaving are wealthy, educated and entrepreneurial professionals. In addition, there’s a separate U.S. program that encourages Cuban doctors on humanitarian missions abroad to defect to the United States.
Cubans’ special perks cost Americans, too. Public benefits provided to Cuban immigrants amounts to nearly $700 million annually, according to a 2015 Sun Sentinel investigation.
Even Cuban-Americans think the policy needs to change. Two-thirds agree that only Cubans who have suffered political persecution deserve preferential treatment, a recent Sun Sentinel poll found. Some Cuban-Americans in Congress are proposing that Cubans, like all other immigrants, should wait in America’s long green card line, unless they can prove they’re oppressed refugees.
Obama should take heed. With diplomatic relations normalizing, America needs to start treating Cubans like it normally does other immigrants – no better, no worse.
Mark Grabowski is a lawyer and professor at Adelphi University who provides monthly commentary on current events.