By Lissa Weinmann
Now that the U.S. and Cuba have, at the executive level, agreed to reestablish embassies, the fight shifts this week to the U.S. Congress where the power of the purse may determine whether such an embassy can operate. Other battles in Congress will include the confirmation of a new U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, revoking travel restrictions to the island, and repealing The Cuban Adjustment Act — a long-standing policy that unfairly grants Cubans automatic residency.
While funding is already in place to continue operations for the U.S. Interest Section in Havana through 2017, establishing a full embassy and plans to replace the old facility, that is reportedly in disrepair, will require more funds. These funding questions will be discussed July 7 as part of the State Department’s Foreign Operations bill.
According to Congressional sources, it is possible a vote on free travel could occur as part of one of these appropriations bills. Senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) bill to lift travel restrictions currently has a healthy 44 cosponsors. Leahy is also the ranking democrat on the Senate’s State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittee. Companion legislation led by Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) in the House has 35 cosponsors.
While bipartisan support for normalization is growing, especially among farm state members, two Senators, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have vowed to block funding for the embassy and confirmation of an ambassador. Both are of Cuban origin but were born in the U.S. and have never been to the island. It only takes one senator to delay the Ambassador nomination process. The current head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, could simply remain de-facto head. The funding piece appears to have more solid backing, especially since not all Republicans share Rubio and Cruz’s will to fight.
One such Republican, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada visited Cuba this past week as a member of a bipartisan Senate delegation and released a statement saying, “with the opening of these embassies, the United States and Cuba continue to build a path that will one day open up travel and lead to numerous opportunities mutually beneficial to the people of both countries.”
While the opening of embassies spurs debate, another change on the horizon appears to have universal support even among Cuban American hard-liners — repeal of the one-of-a-kind policy that grants any Cuban who lands on U.S. shores permanent residence status.
The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act was meant to give financial assistance and automatic residence to those fleeing Communist Cuba during a time of great civil strife on the island. A ‘90s redux restructured the act to create the sadly misguided ‘wet-foot, dry-foot policy.’ This policy perpetuates a Hunger Games-like contest where Cubans willing to risk their lives to make it to U.S. shores are granted residence and a host of other taxpayer funded perks like rental assistance, job search help, etc., while those caught at sea are returned to Cuba. Countless others have died trying. More than 1 million Cubans have received U.S. residency since the law was enacted in 1966. No figures are available on the number of deaths at sea, but anecdotal evidence from Miami and Cuba indicate that number is likely quite high.
Critics of the Cuban Adjustment Act have long noted that Cubans are the only immigrants who are not sent back to their country when they reach the U.S. illegally. It makes no sense to give automatic asylum to Cubans when true political refugees fleeing much more troubled countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia to name a few, must apply for asylum in the normal way. Anti-immigration Senate Republicans tend to agree with the criticisms of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters in Miami that thinks the 47-year-old law should be re-examined. “It gets very difficult to justify someone's status as an exile and refugee when a year and a half after they get here they are flying back to that country over and over again," Rubio said. Many others in Florida feel the same way, as a Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously voted to petition Congress to revise the Act and all three Cuban-American U.S. Representatives from Florida have voiced support for a change in the policy due to the high level of criminal activity and deaths at sea it incites. The media in Florida have also heavily criticized the adverse effects of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
In “Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline” the Florida Sun Sentinel blames the policy for creating a “criminal network facilitated by U.S. law,” that has cost the U.S. an estimated $2 billion over the past 40 years. The Sentinel piece also reveals that, although Cuban-Americans account for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, they are responsible for 41 percent of arrests for health care fraud.
Paradoxically, the Cuban government has benefitted to some degree from this illegal activity, routinely charging them with the crime of 'unjust enrichment' and seizing their assets. Despite this boon, the Cuban government has made repeal of the policy a first-order priority because it dangles an irresistible carrot before professionals — whose education has been 100 percent financed by the government. Josefina Vidal, head of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ U.S. Department and the lead negotiator in talks with the U.S., told reporters that the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy constituted the, "main incentive and the principal stimulus for illegal immigration."
Since Obama announced his Cuba policy shift last December, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of Cuban migrants landing on U.S. beaches. The U.S. Coast Guard has recorded 2,806 Cuban interdictions, landings, and disruptions in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean, and Atlantic. Since the Coast Guard’s first priority is ‘safety at sea,’ valuable resources are being diverted from drug trafficking and other homeland security provisions with policy-enhanced flow of Cuban migrants.
Perhaps one of the most important reasons for repealing the policy lies in the fact that the law strips any incentive for motivated and intelligent people to stay in Cuba in order to build a better society. Raúl Castro has loosened Cuba’s hold on its people by removing the long-hated ‘exit visa’ and moving to normalize Cubans’ ability to travel abroad, but the U.S. is undermining positive change in Cuba by allowing Cuban professionals needed to navigate change an easy out.
“The Cuban Adjustment law is providing Cubans with an economic escape hatch which is unfair compared to our policy to other potential immigrants," said Silvia Wilhelm, A Cuban-American and Director of Puentes Cubanos in Miami. "It puts Cuban lives at risk, encourages professional smuggling and should end."
Sacking the Cuban Adjustment Act would save lives, improve the coast guard’s ability to focus on drug interdiction and thwarting terrorist threats, and improve America's international credibility by treating Cuban immigrants the same as those of other nations. Normalizing U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba in this way has widespread support. Congress should make it a priority before it leaves session this summer.
Lissa Weinmann is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Elliott P.]