By: G. Isabelle Abad
Originally Posted on Forbes.com
Ms. Abad is a Dominican-American writer, entrepreneur and contracts/business initiatives specialist in financial services.
Amidst the bustling controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Cuba, and the international pressures for the United States to end the embargo against Cuba, many are still unaware of a separate policy intrinsically tied to the embargo that encourages Cuban migration: The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). The CAA is a federal law enacted in 1966 by the United States Congress, which allows Cuban nationals an extraordinarily generous immigration process to enter the United States.
If a Cuban’s foot touches American soil, he/she is legally granted entrance into the United States. In addition to entrance, Cubans immediately qualify for various forms of government aid such as food stamps and welfare. Since asylum is not required, Cubans may obtain American residency after one year, even if they plan to eventually return to Cuba.
No other nationality in the world is extended this privilege. Since its enactment, this Cold War era policy has encouraged Cubans to embark on dangerous land or sea migrations to the United States, imposed a cost to American taxpayers, and caused irreparable damage to the Cuban economy. This disastrous and outdated policy must be amended.
Enticing Cuban migrants
In the 1990s, due largely in part to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba faced an economic crisis called the Special Period. By 1994, the U.S. Coast Guard had intercepted approximately 37,000 Cubans at sea. The rise in migration pressured the Clinton Administration to impose a new provision to the CAA called the Wet Feet, Dry Feet Policy, which no longer allowed Cubans found at sea to enter the United States. Since then, if these migrants are found at sea they are returned to Cuba.
The CAA continues to entice Cubans to migrate to the United States, many of whom have resources that could be invested into the Cuban economy. Organized sea or land migration from Cuba to Texas or Florida can cost upwards of $10,000, in a country where the average monthly salary is approximately $30. Human traffickers reportedly charge Cuban migrants up to $15,000 for a land migration from Ecuador. Cuba not only loses these migrant’s potential economic or human capital investments but also loses the resources spent providing free healthcare and education to these migrants.
Many Cuban migrants are often healthier and better educated than many Americans. After migrants arrive in the United States, they often compete with Americans for jobs while adding costs to the American economy through government-funded aid.
Leaving for better economic opportunities
Yes, Cuba like every country, has economic and political issues to address or resolve. Initially there were exiles who left Cuba out of fear for their lives. However, today, most if not all Cuban migrants leave for better economic opportunity, not to escape political persecution.
The CAA has left Cuba cornered with an embargo, facing a frail, over-plucked population where many, especially the affluent, leave. Luis Rondon Paz, a Cuban national who writes for the Havana Times, expressed his despair as a child, watching people around him leave Cuba one by one. “All of my primary school friends [left] the country in an avalanche… [and then] two of my sisters,” he said.
On March 18, 2016, 18 of 27 Cuban migrants were rescued after being lost at sea for 22 days; the other 9 had died. Coast Guard Petty Officer, Mark Barney, explained the traumatic condition of the survivors, saying “They could barely walk off the vessel itself… They were weak and they were shaking.”
These dangerous migrations have also promoted the popular misconception that circumstances must be particularly atrocious for Cubans to risk their lives. But according to the Migration Policy Institute since the 1960s, despite these special privileges, Cubans only make up 2.8% of all U.S. immigrants. Referring to Cuban migrants as “refugees” from an unlivable country is not only humiliating to Cubans but a fallacy. Sure, like most of the developing world, opportunities in Cuba are not as plentiful or glamorous as for Americans. But Cubans do not die of hunger; they receive subsidized food from the government; virtually no one is homeless; most do not pay any rent; and healthcare services and education are free.
An immigration privilege like no other
There are far worse qualities of life in most developing countries. Especially those with dangerous and oppressive governments whom we do not extend this immigration privilege to, let alone impose an embargo against.
It is fair to assume that most people in this world, living only 90 miles away from the American coast, with the incentives provided to Cubans, would also risk an 18-hour sea migration to enter the world economic super power.
In fact, many citizens of countries like Angola, Haiti, Spain and Kazakhstan, are known to move to Cuba (some to study medicine since it is free to study) long enough to obtain residency. They then “flee” to the United States as refugees since, under American law, it is not necessary for a Cuban refugee to be born in Cuba.
A surge in migration
Since the Cuban Thaw, there has been a surge in Cuban migration from the anticipation that the CAA will be revoked. Moreover, recently, the CAA has caused a disaster at the Costa Rican border where an estimated 8,000 Cubans were turned away by the Nicaraguan government. Cubans were flying into Ecuador to migrate by land to the Mexican-American border. At the border of Nicaragua, Cuban migrants were halted and turned away. Many migrants refused to be turned away, which led to the use of tear gas and water canons by the Nicaraguan military.
After months in Costa Rica, several Central American countries reached agreements to fly some Cuban migrants to Mexico where they are currently finishing their land migration. Other Cuban migrants have reportedly turned to human traffickers to finish the journey.
Independent land migration for Cubans is particularly dangerous because Cubans are commonly targeted to be robbed and/or killed by non-Cuban criminals who then enter the United States using their identity.
Ecuador has now revoked its open visa policy for Cubans who wish to visit Ecuador for tourism. Now, almost no country in the world will allow a Cuban in without an expensive and complicated visa process because, due to the CAA, travel officials assume a Cuban’s ultimate goal is to reach the United States.
Last week, the migration crisis intensified in Panama. After Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez announced Costa Rica had shut its borders to Cuban Migrants, thousands have been stranded in Panama. On Friday, approximately 1,000 Cubans violently stormed through the Costa Rican border in desperation. Hundreds of Cubans in Panama have begun in a hunger strike. Today, several Cubans continue arriving into Panama each day only to face an impasse.
Why do so many Cubans go back to their country?
It is important to note if things were truly and especially dire in Cuba, then why do many Cubans return to live in Cuba? Even Marco Rubio, son of Cuban migrants and a staunch supporter of most Cold War era policies against Cuba, has sternly expressed his concerns over the CAA: “You now have evidence of people coming to the U.S., [and] qualifying for… benefits and they’re moving back to Cuba and they’re collecting the checks there.”
Throughout the United States borders with Mexico, hundreds of Cuban migrants continue to enter every day. This migratory pattern has highlighted the more arduous process which other immigrant nationals from dangerous, and/or war-torn countries receive. Non-Cuban migrants facing violent conditions from their countries are often turned away or struggle for years to legitimize their asylum claims.
This act is irrefutably outdated. Cuba cannot fully prosper to its full potential as long as the Cuban Adjustment Act, as well as the embargo, remain in place. Adjusting the CAA and lifting the embargo, coupled with the continued progression in Cuban laws to benefit the Cuban people, could provide better security and economic relief to Cuba, the United States, and to the many other countries afflicted by the Cuban migration crisis. If the United States government truly intends to normalize relations with Cuba, then it is time to reconsider these last remaining Cold War relics.