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The new immigrant bogeymen: Cubans

The new immigrant bogeymen: Cubans
An 85-year-old immigrant from Cuba holds an American flag before being sworn in during a naturalization ceremony heldJan. 22 in Hialeah, Fla. (Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

Now that the GOP presidential nominating contest is settling into a three-way race between a would-be wall builder and two guys whose families came from Cuba, a new immigration controversy is coming to the fore.

Record numbers of refugees from Fidel Castro's failed communist experiment are streaming into the United States — not just across the Florida Straits, but especially over the U.S.-Mexico border. During the last three months of 2015, more than 12,000 Cubans knocked on our southern door. This year's migration is on pace to double the previous high.

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In stark, resentment-sowing contrast to other migrants from Latin America, Cubans are greeted in the U.S. with cash, access to welfare and a path to citizenship. That's all thanks to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. But now many politicians are asking whether, during this period of Washington-Havana thaw, it's time to revamp this Cold War-era preference.

"We have people living in Cuba off Social Security benefits... This is an outrageous abuse."


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"I don't think that's fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing?" Donald Trump told the Tampa Tribune this month. "You know, we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment."

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Is this another oh-no-he-didn't moment for Trump, daring to utter an unmentionable in Florida, the way he supposedly did by going after the locally popular George W. Bush in South Carolina? Not quite. America's "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, whereby Cubans who are interdicted at sea are forcibly returned to their homeland, but the ones who make it to shore are accepted as communism-fleeing refugees, is coming under increasing attack by Cuban Americans as well.

"We don't think the U.S. should be fleeced by people who claim to be refugees, then take advantage of our welfare system," Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) recently told Fox Latino. Curbelo in December introduced the Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act, requiring migrants from the island to prove they suffered political persecution before they can receive any government benefits.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Senate version of the bill in January, saying that the increase in Cuban immigration is "becoming a real crisis."

"We have people living in Cuba off Social Security benefits," he lamented to a New Hampshire town hall last month. "They never worked here…. This is an outrageous abuse."

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The other Cuban American senator battling for second place in the Republican presidential primary, however, is comfortable with the status quo. Ted Cruz of Texas, even while promising that all 12 million or so immigrants in the U.S. illegally will somehow be deported and made permanently ineligible for citizenship, thinks the Cuban Adjustment Act should stay in place until Castro's decaying paradise is no longer communist. Cubanos si, Venezolanos no.

This kind of political discord and uneven treatment is what happens when immigration is managed from Washington on a patchwork, country-by-country basis. As has been proved again and again in policies about both immigration and Cuba, unintended consequences are the rule, not the exception.

For instance: The renewed diplomatic relationship with the U.S., to be crowned by President Obama's historic visit to the island next month, is one of the main reasons for the migratory surge. Cubans are heading out now while the Cuban Adjustment Act is still in place, fearing that they'll soon have to apply for documentation like everyone else.

Obama's removal last year of the cap limiting the amount of money Americans can send back to their relatives in Cuba has also boosted the outward migration, in conjunction with Raul Castro's elimination of an exit visa. Suddenly, more Cubans have more access to more money, and no longer require the government's blessing to get on a plane. No wonder they're heading to Ecuador and Mexico with an eye turned northward — because they can.

This is not a "crisis," this is a huge victory for personal and political freedom of a long-suffering people. During my visit to the island last month for the first time since 1998, the presence of new money and personal latitude amid the socialist ruin was palpable and heartening. As the embargo-hating Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was part of my group, pointed out, something like one-quarter of Cubans now make their principal income from nongovernment sources. That's a horrendous number in the free world, but downright miraculous in Havana.

At some point soon, Cubans should rejoin the line with other would-be immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America. But policymakers should be focusing on how to make that line shorter, not longer, with simple rules that respect human aspiration and reflect supply and demand, not the temporal whims of power-seeking pols.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and a contributing writer to Opinion.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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