The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law in 1966, no longer holds the same value. This change has not been at the hands of an amendment, or other piece legislation, rather it has been due to a shift in symbolic significance. Just as the embargo, one of the reasons behind enacting the Cuban Adjustment Act was to show the American public and the world that the United States of America would stand against oppressive, communist, regimes.
The CAA served as a symbol that the United States would stand in solidarity with the Cuban people against the Castro regime by allowing Cuban migrants a path to residency in the United States. This legislation served as a beacon of hope for thousands of Cubans who braved the trip across the Florida Straits to reach U.S. soil.
Today the significance of the CAA has begun to erode. The loosening of travel restrictions and the re-establishment of political ties with Cuba, while it may not be apparent, will bring an integral change to the CAA. The symbolic and legislative success of the CAA relied on the Cuban-American relations of its time. When the CAA was first signed into law, the embargo had been in effect for four years and the cold war was just heating up. Many Cubans were anxious to migrate to the United States to flee oppression.
50 years later, the situation is different. While many do flee the Castro regime and never return, a large number of Cuban migrants return to the island nation regularly. This diminishes the CAA’s significance because this means the group who returns, did not leave as refugee’s, rather just migrants.
With the ongoing immigration debate, should Cuban migrants just seeking economic opportunity, and not refuge, in the United States receive different treatment than migrants from other nations? This question should prompt debate over the CAA’s effectiveness today. While it is still an important piece of legislation, the symbolism it carries is fading. Cuba remains under a communist regime, but our policy towards the Castro regime has changed.
The re-establishment of ties in December 2014 was one of the most important policy shifts in the region in decades. While this shift has yet to translate into an improvement of human rights on the island, re-establishing Cuban-American relations has been positively received by most Americans, signaling a new era in public opinion towards the oppressive island.
Furthermore, this shift and the support for the end of the détente is the catalyst for the diminishment of the symbolic significance of the CAA. Apart from Cuban migrants paradoxically returning to visit the island, American public opinion presents a second paradox. If the American people support the re-establishment of political ties, then they do not think Cuba should be sanctioned because of the Castro regime. In relation to the CAA, since generally people would agree with the re-establishment of ties with the Castro regime, then they would agree that the regime is not oppressive. This would mean that those who suffer human rights violations under the regime should not receive refugee status and achieve residency in the United States because the regime is no longer considered a threat.
There is no indication of legislative action to change the CAA in the near future, but it is important to consider what this act symbolizes and represented to a generation of migrants fleeing oppression. As Americans, we must be conscious of the decisions made by those we put in power, as well as those decisions that have a deeper consequence.
The re-establishment of ties should prompt a reconsideration of the CAA, one that will maintain its symbolic importance. Particularly by amending the CAA to include a process by which one proves refugee status, and not just be given a blank slate. This would remind those who benefit from the CAA what they are fleeing from and what they, and others before them, have suffered to live in freedom.