The Cold War is over, but it still deeply distorts U.S. immigration policy.
Consider the bizarre situation at our southern border. A wave of migrants is expected to appear there, hoping for safe passage into the U.S. and an expedited path to legal status and eventually full citizenship. They will get it.
These lucky migrants won’t be Mexicans fleeing drug cartels. They won’t be Hondurans, who must endure the world’s highest murder rate. And they won’t be citizens of El Salvador, where the Peace Corps just suspended operations because of increasing violence.
No, we deport those people.
They will be Cubans. In recent months, increasing numbers of Cubans have been leaving their island country, flying to Ecuador first and then traveling northward through Central America. They wish to migrate to the U.S., fearful that thawing diplomatic relations will end the special treatment that Cubans who leave the island have long received.
That special treatment needs to end.
The hypocrisy that is embedded in U.S. immigration law will be on full display as the Cubans begin arriving, which could happen in the next few weeks.
Since 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act has given Cuban people an extraordinary advantage over other migrants wishing to enter the U.S. The law was originally intended as a political and humanitarian reply to communism and the oppression of Fidel Castro. No proof that a person has suffered persecution. Where he or she arrives from is enough.
When people attempt to arrive through the Florida Straits, the policy that developed was dubbed “wet foot, dry foot.” If a Cuban can get one foot on dry U.S. soil, he or she can stay and is offered permanent legal status in a year and many other benefits of welfare and help to restart his or her life.
The benevolence of the law made sense in decades past. But a good argument can be made that many of the migrating Cubans are fleeing not persecution but economic turmoil. And in doing so, they are not any more desperate, perhaps even less so, than those fleeing the violence and poverty of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Thousands of Central Americans arrived and asked for asylum in the summer of 2014. But those people are the wrong type of Latino for our policies. Many of them are indigenous, poor and have little formal schooling. So they were held for months in detention camps at the border. Many were eventually released, free to stay in the U.S. at least until their pleas for asylum status or legal residency can be assessed by an immigration judge. Raids and deportations of the Central Americans continue.
Meanwhile, as many as 8,000 Cubans who have been stranded in Costa Rica will soon be making their way northward through Mexico after agreements were worked out by several Latin American governments. The Obama administration plans to open refugee screening centers in Central America, an attempt to stem the flow of non-Cuban migrants.
In this election year, especially in light of the GOP’s appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment, the migrant Cubans will present a political test.
Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents left Cuba before Castro took over, has introduced legislation to curb abuses of the American generosity toward Cubans. The Sun-Sentinel in 2015 documented cases in which Cubans claiming to be exiles were taking U.S. government benefits or committing other types of fraud, even after returning to Cuba.
How far Rubio’s legislation and the companion bill in the House will advance remains to be seen. And there is virtually no appetite in an election year to overhaul immigration for the benefit of more than just Cubans.
Amnesty is still a curse word in most GOP circles. In decades past, that didn’t matter in the case of Cubans, who could be counted on to become Republicans.
If the GOP is to have any hope of salvaging the Latino vote this presidential cycle, it will have to traverse this sticky thicket, also acknowledging the needs of other Latino migrants. They have to beat back the anti-immigrant bleating of Donald Trump, as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did in her response to the State of the Union speech.
They must vow to be just. They must promise to rewrite immigration law to weigh all humans’ needs equally and fairly, with no favor based on country of origin or likely partisan affinity. And they must not bow to nativist screeds.