Under a policy forged in the crucible of the Cold War, the U.S. government treats Cubans fleeing their country differently than it does all other immigrants. Essentially, the policy is: If you can get here, you can stay. But the world has changed since the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 took effect, and Congress should revise the law to end this special treatment.
The existing rules are remarkably loose. Although immigration laws limit the number of other immigrants legally allowed to move to the U.S. each year, there are no restrictions on the number of Cubans. And after a year and a day of residency, a Cuban emigre can apply for permanent status and start on the path to citizenship.
The law was designed as a lifeline for political refugees after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, an exodus that became more dangerous in 1962, when Fidel Castro ended flights between the two nations and the desperate began to rely on boats. About 125,000 arrived during the 1980 Mariel boatlift alone. In the mid-1990s, the two governments moved to curtail dangerous crossings. Under what became known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, the U.S. agreed to return Cubans interdicted at sea — unless they made a credible claim that they faced persecution — while still accepting those who made it to land. Cuba also began letting more than 20,000 people a year accept U.S. visas through a lottery.
Yet the impatient still come by boat, plane, or overland from Mexico and Canada. These days, most people fleeing Cuba are looking for work, not freedom, experts say, as loosened travel restrictions have made it easier for people and money to move back and forth. With an extradition treaty unenforced by either side, Cuban criminals have been responsible for more than $2 billion in fraud and business crimes in the U.S. over the last 20 years, according to a recent investigative series by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When the heat is on, the criminals simply return home, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
The criminals are, of course, outliers. But their presence, and President Obama’s recent moves to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, have refocused attention on a lack of fairness in how the U.S. decides who is allowed into the country. Much like the trade embargo and other U.S. sanctions against Cuba, this special consideration has outlived whatever usefulness it might have had 50 years ago. The U.S. should treat Cubans no differently than it does potential immigrants from the rest of the world.