U.S. Cuba Policy Rewards Illegal Immigration


Cubans who illegally enter the United States benefit from a form of amnesty that allows them to stay and be given all the benefits of refugees. This status is a hold-over from the Cold War that does not apply to anyone from any other country whether it is communist-ruled or not. The U.S. policy encourages illegal immigration from Cuba, often jeopardizing the lives of those who set out to cross to Florida in unseaworthy craft or in the boats of smugglers who may endanger their clients to evade apprehension.

The U.S. Cuba policy discriminates in favor of Cubans in three ways.

Cuban Parole

First, the oldest discriminatory policy is one that lets Cubans who have left Cuba for the United States enter and stay in the United States despite their illegal entry. That policy is accomplished by the use of the discretionary authority conferred on the Executive Branch in our immigration law to parole an alien into the country despite the lack of proper documentation. As a result of being paroled into the country, the Cuban illegal entrants are given a work permit. That policy has been in effect for decades - since the Castro-led revolution declared itself to be communist and allied with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

In 1994, under the threat of a new massive wave of illegal immigration from Cuba like the Mariel boatlift of 1980 during which the Castro regime facilitated an exodus of about 125,000 Cubans among whom he planted hard-core criminals, mental patients and spies, the Clinton Administration restricted the blanket parole of Cuban illegal immigrants. President Clinton announced a 'wet-foot dry-foot' policy in which only those Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil ('dry-foot') would benefit from the earlier blanket policy of parole into the country. Those who were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard or Navy at sea ('wet-foot') would be given an opportunity to assert a claim to refugee status, i.e., that they would face persecution if they were returned to Cuba, and, if they could present no compelling case for refugee protection, they would be returned to Cuba.

This policy remains in effect and most Cubans who are intercepted trying to illegally enter the United States are returned to Cuba. To monitor whether the returned Cubans are in fact not subjected to persecution, the U.S. Interest Section (the equivalent of an Embassy except that we do not officially recognize the Castro regime) in cooperation with international organizations that have operations in Cuba, such as the International Organization for Migration, have maintained follow-up contact with the returned Cubans. The result of this monitoring has been a conclusion that there is no systematic policy of the Cuban government to persecute those Cubans who have been returned.

Cuban Adjustment Act

Second, the parole of illegally arriving Cubans was supplemented in 1966 by enactment of the Cuban Adjustment Act. The CAA provides that a Cuban who has been paroled into the country will automatically be granted legal permanent refugee status one year after entry as long as criminal or other deportable acts have not been committed by the Cuban. The effect of this law is to remove the need for the paroled Cubans to justify refugee status by applying for asylum, as any other person from another country seeking asylum must do. The granting of refugee status confers access to the benefits of the refugee program such as adjustment assistance and immediate access to welfare and health benefits, access to subsidized housing, job training assistance, etc. Unlike legal immigrants who must meet the standard of being self-supporting or supported by a sponsor after their arrival, refugees are sponsored, i.e., supported, by the U.S. public.

Cuban Visa Lottery

Third, in addition to a blanket parole policy and blanket adjustment to refugee status, Cubans also benefit from a special provision for legal immigration to the United States not available to nationals of any other country. As part of negotiations with the Cuban regime by the Clinton Administration, under the threat by President Castro to unleash another massive wave of illegal immigration like the Mariel boatlift, the Clinton Administration agreed to set up a Cuban immigrant visa lottery which would allow up to 20,000 Cubans to legally enter the United States each year.

The Cuban lottery was established not by any change to the nation's immigration law, and therefore enacted by Congress, but rather by Executive authority. President Clinton directed that the parole authority would be used to admit Cubans coming to the United States pursuant to selection by a random lottery among Cubans in Cuba who applied. Counted against the 20,000 limit are Cubans who have illegally entered the United States and have been accorded legal residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The special visa lottery, like the 'wet-foot dry-foot' policy, was adopted as a concession to the Castro regime. Cuba asserted that the United States encouraged illegal immigration from Cuba by adoption of the Cuban Adjustment Act, and because there was little opportunity for Cubans to legally emigrate to the United States. As a result of the lottery, Cuban admissions more than doubled from about 13,000 in fiscal year 1993 to over 26,000 by fiscal year 1996.

Policy Issues

FAIR has long advocated an end to the discriminatory policy for Cubans and has so testified before Congress. The policy changes we have advocated include removal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and rescinding the parole policy that is currently used to implement the 'wet-foot dry-foot' policy and to implement the Cuban visa lottery. FAIR's policy proposal is not to deny protection to Cubans who are able to establish that they have been persecuted in Cuba or would be if they were returned to Cuba, but rather to require that they apply for that protection and make their case like persons from all other countries are required to do before they can be accorded refugee status.

FAIR is convinced that the vast majority of Cubans coming illegally to the United States are doing so in order to seek greater economic opportunity as well as greater freedoms like other illegal immigrants arriving from other countries who are subject to deportation. One aspect of the problem created by the special policies for Cubans is that illegal immigrants from Cuba can bypass being sent back to Cuba under the 'wet-foot' dry-foot' policy if they travel to a third country and then arrive at a U.S. land port of entry. Under our policy, that constitutes a 'dry-foot' arrival in the country. This is an opportunity that is increasingly being exploited by Cubans smuggled out of Cuba.

The illegal arrival of Cubans in the United States today is unlike earlier periods when Cubans set out to float and sail to Florida in rubber-tire rafts and other make-shift floating devices. Currently the stream of entries is more characterized by organized smuggling operations for profit using high-speed boats. This smuggling operation is facilitated by the automatic payment of a resettlement fee for newly admitted refugees that may be used to pay the smuggler.

Because our Cuban policy discriminates in favor of Cubans it gives the appearance of discrimination against illegal entrants from other countries, especially from other Caribbean islands such as Haiti of Jamaica. This dual-standard has resulted in charges of prejudice against blacks, even though many of the Cuban illegal entrants are black as well.

Although the origin of the Cuban policy has its roots in the Cold War and resulted from the alliance of the Castro regime with the Soviet Union, the perpetuation of that policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union is attributable largely to the political activism and influence in the Cuban American community. The Cuban vote is significant in Florida, and it has elected one of its members to Congress as a Republican senator and three as Republican representatives and one from Illinois as a Democrat representative.

In August 2006 after President Castro turned over executive power to his brother during a period of hospitalization, the Bush administration announced its intent to take measures to facilitate the ability of Cubans to legally enter the United States. One of the measures announced was to increase the number of Cuban lottery winners to be paroled in. Another was to facilitate the entry into the United States of Cubans abroad, such as doctors serving in third countries. At present Cubans in third countries are unable to obtain visas to legally enter the United States as nonimmigrants if they intend to come for permanent residence, and they are not able to benefit from the parole and CAA provisions unless they already have arrived in the United States.

Both of these announced measures are trial balloons at present, and it is unclear by how much the lottery visas would be raised or how the Bush administration would allow Cubans in third countries to gain legal entry, although use of the Executive's advance parole authority is the most likely option.

Updated: August 10, 2006