By Wilfredo Cancio Isla (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Fifty years after it was implemented to protect refugees who were escaping the Communist regime, the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) has been subject to serious questioning and its permanence could be on the table as a result of immigration restrictions that president-elect Donald Trump promised during his campaign.
Attacks against the longest-standing legislation giving immigration benefits to a specific nationality in the history of the US have intensified over the last three years. This coincided with more flexible Cuban international travel regulations declared by Raul Castro’s government in 2013 – and the disproportionate increase in Cuban immigration via the Mexican border.
Since 2014, 115,808 Cubans have entered US territory without a visa at border crossing points, 93,000 of whom came during the time when relations between Havana and Washington underwent a thawing process. When they reach the United States, Cubans receive humanitarian parole, financial aid, food coupons and medical insurance, and can change their legal status a year after their arrival.
Sea crossings from the island have also multiplied. In 2016, the migration flow thus far is 7,358 Cubans, which includes those intercepted or spotted along the Florida Strait and in neighboring areas belonging to the Atlantic and the Caribbean, as well as those who managed to reach US territory. A much higher figure than the 4,473 who made this journey last year.
Trump himself was emphatic when asked his opinion about the benefits that Cubans receive just for stepping foot onto US soil.
“I don´t think that´s fair,” Trump said in an interview with the newspaper Tampa Bay Times, last July.
Attacks against the law, which has been in effect since November 1966, have intensified in Congress since last year.
Two congressmen, the Republican Paul Gosar (Arizona) and the Democrat Henry Cuellar (Texas), have presented proposals for legislation to scrap the CAA, while another bill by Florida’s representative, Carlos Curbelo, seeks to amend this law with a clause that will limit the programs aid to refugees who come in search of political asylum.
“What we need to stop is abuse of this law,” Curbelo said. “Its benefits should be reserved for those who are granted political asylum, not for economic migrants.”
Keep the law, cut the benefits
This initiative aims to close the door to the new waves of countless immigrants who declare themselves political refugees in order to get legal resident status and then regularly travel to the island, taking advantage of the benefits they have received. This attitude has sparked disagreement and rejection on the part of Cuban emigres from years gone by.
“The Cuban Adjustment Act should be maintained as an immigrant benefit for every Cuban who decides to escape political persecution or has a lack of opportunities under an authoritarian regime,” immigration lawyer Willy Allen told YAHOO News. “However, benefits shouldn’t be handed out to people who come here to leech off of the public system or receive aid from Social Security in a country where they have never worked.”
Curbelo’s bill is already being backed by 128 congressmen which is similar to the one that has been presented to the Senate by Cuban-American senator Marco Rubio. According to statistics from the Congressional Budget Office, the CAA legislation amendment proposed by Curbelo and Rubio would save 2.5 billion USD in government expenditure over ten years.
However the trigger that activated public opinion with regard to the CAA was the humanitarian crisis provoked by the stampede of thousands of Cubans across Central American, at the end of last year. Stranded for months in camps in Costa Rica and Panama, Cubans managed to slowly leave after governments in the region negotiated a solution so that they could continue on their journey towards the Mexican border in order to reach the US.
In the end, the Central American migration crisis managed to unite regional leaders who put in an unprecedented demand to the United States to get rid of the unusual benefits that Cuban immigrants receive. The war against the CAA took on regional dimensions with a letter ambassadors from nine Latin American countries asking Washington to review its immigration policy directed at Cubans.
On the negotiations table
Raul Castro’s government has placed the CAA on the negotiations table as one of the greater obstacles standing in the way of normalizing bilateral relations between Washington and Havana.
In high-level talks such as immigration discussions, the Cuban delegation has insisted on its “deep concern” about the persistence of the Cuban Adjustment Act along with two fundamental provisions in US immigration policy: the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which has allowed those who reach US soil to seek and receive residency since 1995; and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program which was implemented in 2006 to benefit deserters of Cuban government medical missions in third countries.
Even though the White House has insisted that it has no intention of amending the CAA, the power to change or repeal this law lies exclusively with Congress, with the President being able to veto it.
However, with Trump as president, there would also be the option of voiding the “wet foot, dry foot” policy and the administrative provision “Clarification of Eligibility for Permanent Residence Under the Cuban Adjustment Act”, issued by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service on April 26th 1999.
“The same day he takes power, the President can repeal the “wet foot, dry foot” policy with a presidential decision directive.
In Trump’s hands
The 1999 memorandum is particularly significant as it allowed Cubans who entered the United States by any point to receive humanitarian parole, be eligible to change their status to legal resident and receive refugee benefits. It was precisely this order that triggered the illegal arrival of Cubans by illegal border crossing points and allowed hundreds of people, who would have otherwise remained in a legal limbo if they weren’t granted political asylum, to be processed.
If Trump goes ahead with his plan to control borders and deport people en masse, he could choose to eliminate some immigrant provisions such as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy and speed up the return of over 35,500 deportable Cubans who remain in the US.
“Given Trump’s stance against immigration, especially those without papers, it’s expected that his administration will take some action with regard to the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, considers Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Studies Center at Florida International University.
Duany believes that the main danger that exists with a change to immigration laws for Cuba is that this will create an even greater spike in the number of Cubans who are trying to reach US territory illegally, before they lose their current privileged treatment.
However, everything depends on the policy that the 45th US president proposes to establish with respect to the regime in Havana.
*This article was published on Yahoo News.