The Cuban Adjustment Act

Even as the process of rapprochement between Cuba and the United States of America continues, with a not unexpected ebb and flow in the negotiations and a certain political caution, there is one perhaps surprising point of convergence, albeit for different reasons, between Havana and the staunchly anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Miami: the need to reform or do away with the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).

The CAA allows Cuban immigrants to be fast-tracked to permanent resident status after being physically present in the USA for at least one year – a privilege denied other aspiring immigrants, legal and illegal alike. The original Act, passed by the US Congress in 1966, had stipulated two years, but this was reduced to one year in 1976. In addition, unlike other would-be immigrants, Cubans are not required to enter the USA at an official port-of-entry; that is to say, they do not have to enter legally, they simply have to set foot on US soil to be given sanctuary. Those who are intercepted at sea by the US Coastguard, however, are returned to Cuba.

Havana has resented the CAA for years, regarding it as encouraging illegal emigration and trafficking in persons from Cuba. Miami, on the other hand, the principal destination of Cuban immigrants, has, paradoxically, seen a growing opposition to the so-called ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy and to the arrival of new Cuban exiles in recent times. Their main argument, led mainly by Republican politicians and the Cuban-American establishment, tends to be that the Castro regime has taken advantage of the CAA to get rid of dissidents and other undesirables, as well as to send spies to the USA.

The real reason for opposing the CAA though would appear to be the influence the new immigrants are having on the political demography of South Florida.

According to Ricardo Herrero, executive director of CubaNow, an NGO whose mission is to “inspire a new conversation around the realities taking hold on both sides of the Florida Straits,” the effect of the CAA is to “dilute support for the Republicans.” This view is supported by the non-partisan ‘fact tank,’ the Pew Research Center, which has found that the majority of the more than half a million Cuban immigrants since the 1990s end up voting for the Democratic Party when they become citizens, in contrast to the Republican leanings of the original Cuban-American families.

The situation has not been helped by the fact that, according to the US Coast Guard, the number of Cubans attempting to risk the dangerous sea crossing to reach the USA has risen sharply following the December 17, 2014 announcement of the thaw in relations between the two countries, seemingly prompted by fears that a change in immigration policy is imminent.

Thus, on the same day that diplomatic talks began in Havana, last month, on the normalisation of relations between the USA and Cuba, the Miami-Dade County Commission approved approaching Congress to revise the CAA, with some prominent Cuban-American Republican politicians wanting its complete derogation.

But the Obama administration is giving no indication of revisiting the CAA which, in any case, would have to be repealed by Congress. And it is not expected either, with diplomatic talks under way to address a number of issues pertinent to improving the bilateral relationship, immigration included, that reforming or repealing the CAA would feature prominently. For there is a real fear in Washington that any change to the status of the CAA, especially one announcing or presaging its termination, could provoke massive migration from Cuba. Indeed, the US Coastguard has increased patrols in the Florida Straits since December 17.

Nevertheless, the winds of change are blowing in Miami as much as in Havana and, regardless of the motive for revising or ending the CAA, the logic of continuing the long-standing policy of offering refuge to Cubans fleeing the island would itself have to be revisited at some point.

All of which rather brings us to the intriguing conclusion reached by Mr Herrero: “If we are going to say that things have changed sufficiently to revise the CAA, then we can say that things have changed sufficiently to revise the embargo.”

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