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Cubans Rush To U.S. Ahead Of Potential Changes To Immigration Policy


To learn more about why U.S. immigration policy towards Cuba is so different from its policy towards other Latin American countries, we've reached Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute. He's here with us in the studio. Welcome to the show.

MARC ROSENBLUM: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: First, spell out exactly what the policy towards Cubans is.

ROSENBLUM: Well, under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who are admitted or paroled into the United States become automatically eligible for a green card, a permanent visa, after a year and a day. They're the only nationality, the only group that automatically becomes eligible for a green card regardless of how they arrived and on such a short timeline.

SHAPIRO: And as you say, it's been this way since 1966. Why such a dramatic difference with other countries in the region?

ROSENBLUM: Well, it was really passed in the midst of the Cold War. Cubans were fleeing the repressive Castro regime. It had important symbolic value to encourage those exits as a propaganda tool during the Cold War, and Cubans were recognized as - generally, were recognized as being legitimate humanitarian migrants, as being refugees.

SHAPIRO: And as Carrie explained, one reason we're seeing this rush towards the U.S. border now is fear by Cubans that this policy will change. Do you think that fear is founded?

ROSENBLUM: I think, partly, given the numbers that we're seeing in the context of improving relations, it's harder and harder to defend this policy. It's also hard to defend the policy looking around the hemisphere at the kinds of conditions that other immigrants are fleeing and aren't getting similar benefits. So as long as we keep seeing Cubans come to the U.S. in high numbers to take advantage of this and as long as relations continue to improve, it does seem likely that the Cuban Adjustment Act - that its days are numbered.

SHAPIRO: Some members of Congress, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, as we heard, have proposed changes to this policy. Do you sense that there is real momentum in Congress to do something about this now?

ROSENBLUM: I think there's definitely frustration in Congress about the numbers of Cubans that are arriving, and with respect to Rubio's proposal, there's also frustration about the benefits that Cubans receive because Cubans are eligible immediately for pretty generous welfare benefits as if they were refugees that all other immigrants are ineligible for. So there's a lot of frustration with that. I'm not sure I would say that there's momentum around it just because of the complexity of the immigration issue and being in an election year.

SHAPIRO: It seems so hard for Congress to accomplish anything these days, and we know President Obama has taken executive action on immigration in other ways. Is this the sort of thing that the president could change on his own?

ROSENBLUM: The president could change the way the Cuban Adjustment Act is implemented. He could do it on his own. He could do it much more easily in cooperation with Cuba. So in the context of the ongoing talks, Cuba and the United States could agree on different procedures to follow when Cubans arrive, and that's actually happened in the past. The current policy's usually described as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy. And what that says is that a Cuban who is interdicted at sea - if the Coast Guard stops a boat of rafters trying to reach Florida at sea - those Cubans are sent back to Cuba. Cubans who reach the U.S. benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act, but they have to get paroled into the U.S. in order to benefit, and that's an executive action.

So President Obama or any president could decide that instead of automatically paroling Cubans in, we're going to subject them to some kind of a screening to see, well, do you look like a refugee? And that would work best if we reached an agreement with Cuba similar to the wet-foot, dry-foot act that said Cuba would take people back who aren't refugees.

SHAPIRO: Are there any prominent voices arguing that this Cuba immigration policy really is relevant and valuable today and needs to remain in place?

ROSENBLUM: There are certainly people arguing against overturning the Cuban Adjustment Act because there plenty of Cuban-Americans who continue to view the Raul Castro government as a repressive authoritarian regime and that Cubans therefore need special protection. I don't hear robust defenses of the way that it's now implemented, that we should assume every single Cuban is a legitimate refugee.

SHAPIRO: That's Marc Rosenblum. He's deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. Thanks for talking with us.

ROSENBLUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.