CALIFORNIA

This Cuban American family's fractured views on immigration show how much the community's politics have changed

To her family, Ada Caso is known as la comunista — the communist. And in a Cuban American family, that's as bad as it gets. Though the label is mostly tongue-in-cheek, her liberal political bent makes her an outlier in her mostly conservative family.

"I've always been the black sheep in my family," she said.

Caso, 53, of Long Beach favors Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist. Most of her family members back Marco Rubio. Some may vote for Donald Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee.

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This year, immigration is particularly personal for some members of the Caso family and the Cuban American community, especially since two Cuban American presidential candidates — Rubio and Ted Cruz — have tried to outdo each other by taking an increasingly harder line on immigration.

Rubio, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, has told reporters that he's open to curtailing the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, although he hasn't given specifics. Cruz, whose father also immigrated before Castro, favors leaving the policy unchanged.

That policy, authorized under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, allows Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil to file an asylum claim and qualify for government assistance, legal status and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.

It has drawn criticism from other Latin Americans because it grants special privileges only to Cubans. Some Cuban Americans have also called for the provision to be revoked, saying its original purpose — to help political refugees — has been overtaken by Cubans coming to the U.S. for economic reasons.

Both candidates have taken an aggressive stance against illegal immigration, adopting an enforcement-first approach. Both have also said they want to restrict the number of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

Caso is torn about whether the special privilege for Cubans should remain. Though she's happy to see Cubans have the chance to improve their lives in the United States, she believes others should be afforded the same opportunity.

But she has harsh words for the two candidates' overall stance on immigration.

"I think they are hypocritical," she said. "I think they don't remember where they came from."

Though Caso's views put her far to the left of most of her relatives, many in Southern California's Cuban American community tend to be less conservative than their counterparts in South Florida.

At an estimated 41,000, the Cuban American community in Los Angeles County is dwarfed by the more than 3.5 million people of Mexican descent — a group that is often the target of anti-illegal immigration sentiment.

The Caso family's fractured politics may seem counter to the long-standing perception that the Cuban American community is overwhelmingly conservative. In reality, a diverse political dynamic is increasingly becoming the norm.

Geography, a generational divide, continuous waves of Cuban migration and the passage of time are changing the political landscape of the Cuban American community in Southern California and nationwide, observers say.

"It's never been a static thing … the Cuban American community," said Ruben G. Rumbaut, a professor at UC Irvine who has studied the Cuban diaspora for about 50 years. "It's always changing."

Caso's cousin Sheila Suarez ended up in California after her family migrated to the U.S. before Castro took power. Suarez calls herself a "flower child" who attended UC Berkeley in the 1960s.

The 65-year-old, who lives in La Crescenta, is also a Sanders supporter.

"He reminds me of all of our hopes in the 1960s, of transforming this country… of ending racism, income equality, all of that stuff," Suarez said.

Her uncle, Orlando Caso — who fled the Cuban government in 1968 after his home and business were taken away — said Sanders reminds him of a young Castro.

"She's crazy," he said about his daughter Ada's support of the Vermont senator. The elder Caso, 79, of North Hollywood backs Rubio but plans to skip November's election if Trump wins the Republican nomination.

Suarez is not a Castro supporter but calls the embargo foolish. The blockade, initiated in 1961, at first banned all exports from the U.S. to Cuba except for medicine and some food. It was later expanded to include imports and became permanent. Only an act of Congress can lift the sanctions.

She favors President Obama's move to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which she has visited several times since her family left.

Like Suarez, those who left as children or who are second- or third-generation Americans are likely to be less connected to the island and its politics, Rumbaut said.

Although the original exiles from the late 1950s and early '60s weren't homogenous in their politics, they were generally conservative.

"Those who left as adults from Cuba, especially those who left for political reasons, arguably made the most consequential decision of their lives. It was an act of self-definition like no other and you don't change your attitude 10 years later or 30 years later. You don't say, 'Let bygones be bygones and everything will be fine,'" Rumbaut said.

Younger Cubans are more liberal and tend to be more Democratic than their elders, and their views on relations with Cuba and immigration also differ, according to a 2014 Florida International University poll.

Hugo J. Byrne, who left Cuba in 1961, said the 1966 law was necessary for his group of émigrés because they were fleeing political persecution. Economic migration is another matter, he said.

"As a country, you need to have borders. You need to have laws. Otherwise there would be chaos," said Byrne, a Pasadena resident.

Said his wife, Migdalia Mena-Byrne: "We were fleeing terror in my time. They killed our friends just because they did not agree with the government. We came as refugees." The new Cuban arrivals are different and shouldn't be given legal status, she said.

"They are no longer refugees. They come because of poverty," she said.

Both believe the 1966 law should be repealed because it was intended to protect dissidents and those who were politically persecuted, not economic migrants.

Ada Caso disagrees.

"It shouldn't matter. Everyone has the right to make a life for their family whether they fled for political or economic reasons," she said. "I think that's what all immigrants want."

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Twitter: @thecindycarcamo

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