Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution that resulted in Fidel Castro’s rise to power, countless numbers of Cubans have fled to the United States. Today, there are around 2.2 million Cuban immigrants and their U.S. born descendants living in our country. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), Cuban migrants may attain residency after having lived in the United States for a full year. After a surge of Cuban immigration in 1995, Congress passed an amendment to CAA instituting a “wet foot, dry foot” policy. This means that if a Cuban reaches American soil, they are paroled into the country and eligible under the CAA to gain lawful permanent residency. If, however, the migrant is intercepted at sea, the Coast Guard will send them back to Cuba. Many have made the perilous 90-mile journey across the Caribbean to reach South Florida, and escape the totalitarian Castro regime. While the Cuban Adjustment Act has served as a beacon of hope for the Cuban people since 1966, that beacon is dimming, and may soon be extinguished.
With the historic December 2014 negotiations between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro bringing more normalized relations between the United States and Cuba, the long-standing policy on Cuban immigration may be changed. Currently, Cuban immigrants landing on U.S. soil are granted residency one year after their arrival. Most of these Cuban immigrants are fleeing the lack of opportunity in Cuba and the oppressive nature of the Cuban government.
It is not clear whether the normalization of relations with Cuba will bring about a change in the current policy or whether Cuban migrants will still have refugee status. If any changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act occur, then new Cuban refugees will have a much harder time remaining legally in the United States given that they would have to prove an asylum claim for political refugees, or have to use any of the other legal avenues available for immigration. This concern among Cubans alone led to a 65 percent increase in the number of Cuban refugees entering the United States in the last three months of 2014. In December 2014, the Coast Guard intercepted 481 Cuban rafts trying to reach the U.S. coast, a 117 percent increase since December 2013.
Cuban’s unique immigration status has represented an ongoing struggle many Cubans face against the Castro regime. While lawmakers have not explicitly mentioned a coming change in the law, with the normalization of relations between the two nations, a change might be inevitable.
There are two reasons for this.
First, the normalization of relations between the two countries, including loosening of travel restrictions, will change the purpose of Cuban immigration. Cuban-American lawmakers such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) have pointed out that there are a number of Cubans, with lawful permanent residency and American citizenship, that return to the island nation to do things like sell goods, attend events, or have medical procedures performed. This presents a paradox. If you are fleeing a regime, how can you make constant trips to the same nation you fled? If Cubans are returning to Cuba, are they still refugees?
Second, these questions should compel us to consider that the reasons behind granting Cuban immigrants blanket refugee status may no longer hold the same weight. According to section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) the term refugee means:
“Any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Under this definition a refugee must be, “unable or unwilling to return to,” their country of origin. While many Cubans do leave Cuba and never return, the thaw in diplomatic relations and travel restrictions has resulted in an increased number of Cuban-Americans returning to the island to visit family. In 2014, around 400,000 Cuban-Americans returned to visit family or friends. This would mean, by definition, those 400,000 do not meet the criteria to have refugee status, and are no longer refugees.
It may still be too soon to tell if the number of Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba will rise in the next couple of years with the restoration of diplomatic relations and travel. As far as the future of the Cuban Adjustment Act, its original purpose and symbolism may be threatened. Originally a piece of cold-war legislation, today’s shifting geo-political landscape is bringing about an interesting change in the effectiveness of the Cuban Adjustment Act as a policy as well as dimming this beacon of its symbolic importance.