An odd confluence of efforts at migration reforms in Washington and Havana has sparked calls for a review of the Cuban Adjustment Act -- the U.S. law that has provided the greatest benefits to Cuban arrivals for the last half-century.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, all South Florida Republicans and Cuban-Americans, say the CAA needs tweaking to stop abuses by those who "fled communism" and yet return repeatedly to the island.
And while the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress appear determined to keep the law intact, some advocates of improved U.S.-Cuba relations are calling for its total elimination as a Cold War leftover that gives Cubans benefits not available to any other migrants.
Under debate are whether Cubans are escaping repression or are economic migrants, the letter and spirit of the CAA and whether new arrivals still need the benefits of a 47-year-old law that fast tracks U.S. residency after just one year and one day.
Those questions burgeoned after reforms to Havana's migration system on Jan. 14 created the possibility that more Cubans would be arriving in the United States, obtaining U.S. residency and then returning to the island quickly enough to retain their residency there.
The Obama administration had already lifted virtually all restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island for family reunification visits. Washington also guarantees a minimum of 20,000 visas to Cubans per year -- an assurance not available to any other country -- under a 1994 bilateral agreement designed to discourage illegal and risky attempts to escape the island by sea.
The CAA, which was approved in 1966, was designed to normalize the status of about 123,000 Cubans who had fled Fidel Castro's revolution and been "paroled" into the United States but were in immigration limbo. Well over 1 million Cubans have now obtained U.S. residency under the law, officially named the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act.
Rubio has said that he and other senators now negotiating a U.S. migration reform package might not "be able to avoid, as part of a comprehensive approach to immigration, a conversation about the Cuban Adjustment Act."
"It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify it for my colleagues when there are people who come to the United States ... and within a year and a day are traveling to Cuba 25 and 30 times a year," Rubio told journalists recently. "That being said, it's important for us to remind people that Cuba is a tyrannical regime."
U.S. immigration rights activists have long criticized the CAA -- and the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that allows those who set foot on U.S. territory to remain while those intercepted at sea are sent back to Cuba. They point out that the law does not mention the words communism or persecution, and that it offers the benefits of refugee status, including public health, that would be better afforded to true refugees.
"A generous immigration system depends on fairness and even treatment across groups and no political favoritism. Economic migrants from Cuba should be treated the same as those from any other country," said Phil Peters, a vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank in Washington who recently wrote a hefty report on U.S.-Cuba migration issues.
For Diaz-Balart, the absence of the word communism means nothing. "Why is there a CAA? Is it because Cubans are nicer, more attractive, have better shoes? No. It's because of the political conditions on the island," he said. "And when you have people going back and forth, that's an abuse."
Rubio has said he wants to keep the CAA but so far made no specific proposals for reforming it. Ros-Lehtinen has only hinted that the law's benefits should be denied to any Cubans in the United States who return to the island too quickly.
Diaz-Balart said he favors keeping the overall law and would not comment on any plans for legislative proposals on how to change it, apparently to keep congressional opponents of changes in the dark until the last minute.
"The migration policy of the United States will not be decided by Cuban octogenarian dictators. We will be watching what will happen in these next few months, to act accordingly," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Rep. Joe Garcia, a South Florida Democrat and also Cuban-American, said Democrats in Congress and the White House oppose changing the law because "the conditions that led to the Cuban Adjustment Act are the same that exist today" -- a repressive government.
"I have spoken to the (immigration reform) negotiators in the House, in the Senate and in the White House, and the words 'Cuba' or 'Cuban Adjustment Act' did not come up in those meetings," Garcia said.
There have been attempts through the years to change or abolish the act.
Former Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, proposed getting rid of it in 2006. And former Rep. David Rivera, a South Florida Republican, in 2011 proposed denying its benefits to Cubans who return to the island for visits
Twelve leading Miami-based Cuban exile groups, including Bay of Pigs veterans in the Brigade 2506, issued a declaration Jan. 15 warning that unless the CAA is modified the United States will face a mass inflow of Cubans.
Havana's migration reforms, designed to allow Cubans to travel abroad and return more easily, will unleash "a bothersome social political and economic avalanche," the declaration said. The CAA, the groups declared, should benefit "only true political and ideological opponents, those repressed or persecuted for dissenting from the Communist tyranny."
While the Cuban government has long condemned the CAA as an "assassin law" that lures Cubans into risky escape attempts aboard makeshift boats, Havana's second-ranking migration official, Lamberto Fraga, noted last month that Havana's decision to extend the time Cuban citizens can spend abroad without losing their island residency from 11 to 24 months meant a Cuban can take advantage of the adjustment act -- "and retain his Cuba residency."
Peters, who favors closer U.S. engagement with Havana, backs total abolition of the CAA "because it responds to a circumstance that no longer exists" and offers Cubans economic benefits, such as health insurance and child care, that can better be used for true refugees.
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