Photo: Cristobal Herrera/Newscom
A raft carrying Cuban refugees lands ashore in South Beach.
Florida Statewide Roundup
Special residency status for Cuban immigrants is on precarious footing
Cuban immigrants have gotten special residency status for 50 years. Some think that should change.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the federal law that remade Florida. The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed during the Lyndon Johnson administration, was intended to conform U.S. law to the reality of Fidel Castro’s consolidation of power on the island: 260,000 Cuban refugees had come to the United States and weren’t going back. The law gave them residency status, which put them on an accelerated road to citizenship.
The 1966 law to deal with that pool of people has meant special treatment of Cuban migrants ever since. Alone among immigrants, Cubans who make it to the United States — regardless how they enter — are guaranteed a green card after a year. As refugees, they are immediately eligible for welfare, food stamps and other public assistance. Migrants from other countries who come legally must wait five years for their green cards.
The law has become the subject of increasing criticism, and in October,U. S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., filed a bill to repeal it.
The status quo faces a challenge because of:
- Changing immigrants. It is widely accepted that most Cubans who have come since 1995 — the largest wave since the Cuban revolution — immigrated for economic reasons rather than because of political persecution.
- Changing U.S. policy toward Cuba. President Obama’s Cuba opening is but the latest change in policy that has diluted the ra-tionale for the law. Over the years, the U.S. has made it easier for immigrants to return to Cuba to visit and send money to the island, while Cuba has made it easier for its citizens to stay in the United States and return without losing their Cuban citizenship.
- Inequity. The question often has been raised as to why other immigrant groups don’t enjoy the same immigration treatment Cubans do.
- Abuse. In a wrinkle getting greater attention, the special privilege for Cubans extends even to people born outside Cuba to Cuban parents. Thus the grown children of parents who left Cuba for Venezuela, Spain and other countries are entering the United States as Cuban citizens and making a claim for residency.
- Crime. Last year, in a series of articles, the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale reported that the act “has fueled a criminal pipeline from Cuba to Florida, enabling crooks from the island to rob American businesses and taxpayers of more than $2 billion over two decades.” Stolen money flows to Cuba; the thieves return there and live well off their gains from fraud, theft and drugs. By the Sun Sentinel count, natives of Cuba amount to less than 1% of the U.S. population but since 2000 made up 41% of health care fraud arrests. The series also detailed how some Cubans emigrate here, file for benefits and return to the island with their U.S. benefit money following them.
Cuban-American legislators, the greatest advocates for the act, say it needs to be changed rather than scrapped altogether.
GOP presidential candidate and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio says he wants the law amended to preserve protections for true refugees while eliminating “loopholes being exploited by those who abuse U.S. law, travel back to Cuba frequently and take advantage of American taxpayers.”
U. S. Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, Rflorida, says, “There should be no back-and-forth traffic to Cuba for those who choose to use the CAA to obtain U.S. residency because these individuals are abusing the system to jump in line over every other refugee.”
A poll of Cuban-Americans in 2014 found that the law remains overwhelmingly popular. Some 86% of Cuban-Americans polled in 2014 on the law “strongly favored” or “mostly favored” it, says Guillermo Grenier, a Florida International University professor who has led the FIU Cuba Poll since 1991. Cuban-Americans who came in earlier waves were less supportive than those who came since 1995, he found. Given its popularity, he doesn’t foresee a repeal, but he does expect change.
“I think you’ll see some kind of adjustment to the Cuban Adjustment Act,” Grenier says.