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Cuba Refugees in U.S. Hold Special Immigration Status : Citizenship: Those fleeing Castro are unique in being guaranteed entry. Haitians, whose exodus is similar, say they are victims of discrimination.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, about 15,000 Haitians are crowded into a holding camp. Picked up by U.S. warships as they tried to sail to America, they have no chance of entering the United States. Eventually, they will be sent back home.

A few miles away, in the port city of Mariel, thousands of Cubans are lining the docks, waiting to sail to South Florida. They, too, will be picked up--by Coast Guard cutters--and brought to Miami, where they will be welcomed as legal residents. No questions will be asked.

The irony-filled image--both groups are fleeing from oppressive regimes--underscores one of the most striking disparities in U.S. immigration law: the favored treatment that has been afforded Cuban refugees here for the last 28 years.

For a variety of Cold War-era reasons, Cubans enjoy a privilege that no others seeking to come to the United States can claim: guaranteed entry into this country and immigrant status after one year.

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The special advantage stems from the mid-1960s, when Congress, eager to encourage defections from Fidel Castro’s Communist regime, granted Cuban refugees instant status as legal residents, virtually ensuring that they would be able to apply for citizenship.

Washington has more than enough slots for the few thousand Cubans each year who apply for standard entry visas through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a kind of unofficial embassy that the United States maintains in the Cuban capital.

Cubans who come to U.S. shores by spiriting themselves out of their country by airplane or boat--as most among the current wave of Cuban asylum-seekers are doing--are permitted to stay for at least a year and are granted near-automatic immigrant status after that.

The old Cold War legislation delights Cuban Americans in South Florida but it gnaws at leaders of the area’s fast-growing Haitian community, who have watched their own relatives in Port-au-Prince being turned away from U.S. shores and sent back to Haiti.

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Haitian American relief groups have complained bitterly that Haitian asylum-seekers--who in many cases are being subjected to political threats similar to those that have plagued the Cubans--are being discriminated against by U.S. policy.

The Haitians have a point. Under current law, Haitians who are seeking asylum in the United States must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland. If they merely are seeking to come here to better their economic plight, they are summarily rejected.

But Cubans who come here by boat are admitted with no questions asked, and they do not have to prove that they are escaping from a repressive regime. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the government assumes that they are political--rather than economic--refugees.

At the same time, the Clinton Administration is finding the law affecting Cubans to be an impediment in a different way: As long as the legislation remains in effect, it is difficult for the Administration to stem the tide by turning the Cubans away, as it has the Haitians.

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“The law doesn’t give us an awful lot of flexibility,” one key U.S. strategist said.

Adding to the disparity--and to the Administration’s overall problems in handling the current influx--is that Castro himself has refused to allow U.S. authorities to return Cuban nationals who have been rejected.

Except for those sent back after the 1980 Mariel boat lift--after protracted negotiations with the Castro government--Washington has only been able to return one Cuban national in the 35 years that Castro has been in office.

What is more, Administration officials and congressional strategists alike say prospects that the legislation can be changed to make Cuban refugees subject to the same entry requirements as those from other countries appear relatively dim.

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Unlike the Haitian Americans, who have only recently begun to exercise any political clout in the South Florida community, the Cuban Americans have become a serious power--with plenty of allies among conservatives in all parts of the United States.

With Castro still in office--and his regime on the ropes because of the sharp deterioration in economic conditions in Cuba--lawmakers are not likely to want to change the regulations, particularly with an election on tap for this November.


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