Immigration reform and the Cuban Adjustment Act

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By Keith Bolender

While desperate children cross the American border from troubled Central American countries, leaders in the United States continue to demonstrate that no issue, no matter how emotionally charged or morally clear, is beyond politics. And there is one group that is particularly adept at duplicity when determining which immigrants deserve to be treated better than others.

The crisis has brought to the forefront a set of Congressmen who believe that children sent by their parents from Honduras, Guatemala and Salvador to the United States in the hopes of a better life have to be sent back unequivocally, less these unfortunates get away with flaunting the laws and take advantage of American generosity – which they apparently do not deserve.

Politicians, in large part from the Republican Party, have made it clear these children should not receive special consideration, regardless of the physical dangers or economic depravations they left in their home countries. Two from the Grand Old Party have been particularly vociferous in their determination to keep the immigration door closed for certain Latinos. Senators Ted Cruz from Texas and Florida’s Marco Rubio represent the hardest opponents of leniency towards these refugees. Wielding a great deal of influence, despite last year’s confusion when Rubio presented but then rejected his own more moderate legislation on the matter, the pair have been particularly effective in blocking any attempt at resolving the crisis or showing concern for the children crossing the border. Cruz led other Senate conservatives in urging rejection of the recently proposed House border security package based on the irritation that it excluded language prohibiting expansion of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, an administrative change Obama made in 2012 to halt the deportation of some young immigrants.

What makes the position of Cruz and Rubio particularly disconcerting is that both come from an immigration background – specifically from a country where these immigrants are given special consideration – Cuba. Cruz was born in Canada to a Cuban father who experienced torture and beatings during the Batista dictatorship, fleeing the Caribbean island in 1957. Rubio, who comes from Cuban-American parents, at one point became somewhat muddled with his own family history when he previously claimed his parents left to escape the Castro tyranny, when in fact they legally immigrated to the United States in 1956, three years before the triumph of the revolution.

The pair consistently speak out against the Castro revolution and remain fully supportive of the special treatment those with the same heritage receive when it comes to immigration. Cubans who make it to the USA are not only welcomed, but accepted with open arms full of economic and political benefits. Regardless of their age, condition or reason for leaving the island. This is made possible under the decades old Cuban Adjustment Act, implemented in 1966 as part of America’s political weaponry against the revolution. The Act was designed to encourage Cubans to leave the island, providing incentives such as permanent residence status after one year. Cubans simply have to show up at any American border, no questions asked, and they are allowed entry after a cursory examination. Immediately they can apply for social assistance programs, claim various financial benefits and be provided with considerations such as free English lessons.

The Act encourages Cubans to claim political refugee status, with the person only having to assert some ill-treatment at the hands of the revolutionary government to ensure there would be no complications upon entry. It helped establish the exile community to set up its base in Miami and become the voice of anti-revolution and the energy behind keeping the American embargo against Cuba unchanged. Critics of the Act state it encourages Cubans to leave the island on flimsy rafts, risking life in order to gain benefits no other immigrant can. Consistently the American government has used the Act to score political points, pointing to the arrivals as proof as how desperate the Cubans are to get out of the country – without mentioning the Act or the immediate advantages it provides them. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the continuing struggles of the Cuban economy, even the U.S. side admits the Act now has little to do with politics, and simply as a way for Cubans to escape their economic difficulties. The same reason most Central America immigrants cite.

In reality, Cuba provides far more social programs and personal security, despite the economic special period they’ve suffered during the past 25 years, than do most Central American countries. But it is the Cuban immigrant who obtains all the benefits, while others are demonized and sent back.

Both Cruz and Rubio have spoken publicly for the need of maintaining the Act, with the only hesitation coming from Rubio who expressed minor concerns that the recently arriving Cubans were undermining the justification for the Act by traveling back and forth to the island for family vacations and business trips, making it hard to maintain the claim they were exiles fleeing an oppressive regime.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify it to my colleagues,” Rubio said.

Particularly when surveys such as the one from the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies showed the cost of public benefits provided to Cuban immigrants was $322 million in 2008. Or when the State Department in 2009 noted, “Overwhelmingly, applicants appear motivated to leave Cuba due to economic and family reasons.”

Increasingly, the trend is now for Cuban seniors, who have lived all their lives supporting the Revolutionary government, deciding on retirement in the United States in order to enjoy the benefits provided by the Act – including monthly social assistance payments. This is becoming more common thanks to the increased flexibility Cubans have to travel outside the island. Even former baseball stars such as Antonio Pacheco recently became one of the ‘refugees’ from Cuba, landing in Florida under the Act’s provisions, despite the well-above average lifestyle he commanded in Cuba.

The Cuban Adjustment Act is an anachronism first developed to create political propaganda against the revolutionary government through immigration incentives. It is now merely a method to provide an unfair advantage for Cuban immigrants in comparison to their counterparts in Latin American countries who face real dangers from their government or the violent societies they live in. It remains yet another hypocrisy in America’s decades-long aggression against the Castro regime when politicians with Cuban ancestry such as Cruz and Rubio show little humanity for unaccompanied children from Central America to enter the United States, yet stand firmly behind the Cuban Adjustment Act’s ability to keep the doors wide open for purely economic immigration from Cuba. All the while maintaining the fallacy of using the Act to continue to try and embarrass the Cuban government.

Keith Bolender is author of Cuba Under Siege: American Policy, The Revolution and its People. (Palgrave 2012) This article was written for Progreso Weekly.

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