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Law Favoring Cuban Arrivals Is Challenged

Law Favoring Cuban Arrivals Is Challenged

MIAMI — In the wake of President Obama’s move to rekindle diplomatic
ties with Cuba, Cuban-American legislators in Washington and local
officials in Florida are calling for reconsideration of a
once-sacrosanct element of American foreign policy — the 1966 law that
gives Cubans broader protections than any other immigrants arriving in
the United States.

Critics of the law, joined by the hard-line Cuban-American congressional
delegation, say it is being abused by recent waves of Cuban arrivals who
regularly travel back and forth between Cuba and the United States as
economic, not political, refugees.

Written during the height of tensions with the Soviet Union, the Cuban
Adjustment Act was meant to offer safe haven for Cuban refugees fleeing
oppression from their Communist government. The law allows all Cubans
who reach the United States, legally or illegally, to become permanent
residents in a year and a day. Five years later, they can become United
States citizens.

The law is still popular with most Cubans in Florida. But influential
Cuban-American politicians argue that the moves to normalize relations
undercut the rationale for the law — that it protected refugees from an
outlaw government at a time they did not have the option of returning home.

Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida, said the move to
restore diplomatic ties had undermined a law. Credit Jabin Botsford/The
New York Times
Critics also say the law is being abused by criminals who take advantage
of it to ferry money between Cuba and the United States, and then flee
to Cuba rather than risk arrest.

Representative Carlos Curbelo, a newly elected Republican Cuban-American
from Florida, said he would draft legislation to make it more difficult
for Cubans who come seeking jobs, and not protection from the Castro
government, to avail themselves of the law.

“The president’s actions on Cuba have severely undermined the law
because he has essentially recognized the Cuban government as
legitimate,” Mr. Curbelo said. He added, “The United States has offered
one of the most generous immigration laws perhaps in history, and
certainly that is being abused systematically.”

His reservations are shared by other Cuban-Americans in Congress,
including Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Senator Robert
Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey. But, reflecting the delicacy of the
issue among Cubans, the others have not detailed any corrective action.

Their concerns are also shared by the Miami-Dade County Commission in
Florida, which recently voted unanimously to ask Congress to revise the law.

“I think the law should be eliminated,” Bruno Barreiro, the commissioner
who sponsored the resolution, said the week before the vote. “How can
someone claim to be politically persecuted, have a special path to
residency and citizenship, and a year and a day after being here travel
back to Cuba?”

The commissioners’ position reflects a divide between many recent and
older immigrants from Cuba. Many earlier immigrants say the law should
only protect Cubans fleeing political oppression. Newer immigrants, who
benefit most from the law, are more likely to support its blanket
application to all Cuban immigrants. But the Cubans who have been here
longest have the most political clout.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
For now, the law stands, and Obama administration officials say they do
not intend to weaken it. Nor are there plans to modify a 1995
immigration policy that allows the United States Coast Guard to return
to Cuba the Cubans it stops at sea, unless they claim political
persecution. Under this “wet feet, dry feet” approach, those who make it
to American soil can avail themselves of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Fear that the policy would change after President Obama’s announcement
led to a surge in Cubans jumping on boats and rafts headed for Florida
in the past month. The numbers have begun to decline since the
government emphasized that no change was imminent.

“A change in policy is not being considered,” said Alejandro Mayorkas,
deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who attributed
the rumors of a policy change to smugglers trying to drum up business.

Because it is a law, Congress can repeal the adjustment act, but not
easily. It can do so only after the president has determined that a
“democratically elected government in Cuba is in power.”

The law also remains a matter of contention between American and Cuban
officials. During recent negotiations in Havana, a Cuban official said
the law tempted Cubans to risk their lives at sea, enriched smugglers
and siphoned away Cuban professionals.

American officials shrugged off the complaints. “We explained to the
Cuban government that our government is completely committed to
upholding the Cuban Adjustment Act,” said Alex Lee, the State Department
official who was in charge of the migration-related portion of the talks.

But immigration analysts said the law had become increasingly difficult
to defend because it so clearly favored Cubans over other would-be
immigrants facing repression and oppression in their home countries.

“At a time when we are working so hard to send back Central Americans
who are fleeing levels of persecution at least similar to what happens
in Cuba, that double standard will definitely be looked at,” said Marc
R. Rosenblum, an immigration expert for the Migration Policy Institute,
a nonpartisan research group.

With the possibility of an immigration debate in Congress this year, the
law is now an easier target for Republicans eager to crack down on
immigration, and for lawmakers from agricultural states who want the
economic embargo lifted to facilitate exports to Cuba. A bipartisan
group of senators introduced a bill on Thursday to lift all travel
restrictions to Cuba.

“The law is an outlier,” said Guillermo J. Grenier, a sociologist at
Florida International University. “It just hangs out there begging to be
hit like a piñata.”

Cuban immigration to the United States continues to grow, with 20,000
Cubans a year arriving legally with visas. Thousands more reached the
United States in the past year by the Mexican border, by plane or by sea.

And in 2014, nearly 40,000 Cubans received tourist visas, many of them
valid for five years. That number climbed steeply after President Raúl
Castro relaxed Cuba’s exit permit rules. It is unclear how many of those
visitors will choose to stay permanently, immigration analysts say.
Supporters of the 1966 law say that as long as the Cuban government
detains and harasses dissidents and the United States maintains its
embargo, the law is justified.

Some in Congress, like Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the
ranking Democrat on the immigration subcommittee, said the solution was
to broaden protections for other immigrants, not reduce them for Cubans.

“I’m not suggesting we put Cubans in jail,” she said. “I’m suggesting we
should also have a more generous policy for other people freeing

Many in South Florida, like Francisco José Hernández, a 1960s exile and
the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, which works to
foster democracy in Cuba, said the economic and political success of
Cuban-Americans was based in large part on the law.

“To renounce it,” he said, “doesn’t make sense.”

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