Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US-Cuba Thaw: What Will Happen to Cold-War Cuban Migration Policy?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US-Cuba Thaw: What Will Happen to Cold-War Cuban Migration Policy?

Article excerpt

For decades, Cubans who made it safely to US soil - often after a perilous crossing of the Florida Straits in a flimsy raft - have benefited from a cold-war-era law that prohibits their deportation and puts them on a Cubans-only fast track to US residency and citizenship.

In other words, under US immigration law there were Cubans - and then there was everybody else.

But now, President Obama's plan to normalize relations with Cuba after more than five decades of hostility between the two countries is adding momentum to efforts that were already building steam to redo US laws. The objective would be to treat Cubans something closer to the way most others seeking entry to the United States are treated: as people primarily seeking economic betterment but less commonly acting to escape political persecution.

Calls to change the 1966 law granting Cubans special immigrant status can now be heard from Miami to Congress. The Miami-Dade County Commission voted last month to lobby Congress to revise the law, and freshman US Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida is pressing for changes that would limit the law's protections to Cubans fleeing their country for political reasons.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday on Mr. Obama's Cuba initiative. The committee is set to hear from Roberta Jacobson, State Department assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, as well as Commerce and Treasury officials, and is expected to probe the impact that policy changes could have on Cuban immigration.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida called a similar hearing Tuesday morning for the Senate Foreign Relation Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, which Mr. Rubio chairs. He and fellow Cuban- American Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, offered the panel's strongest opposition to Obama's Cuba opening.

However, change in US immigration law toward Cubans seems inevitable if the objective is truly to normalize relations between the two countries, some regional experts say - although no one foresees reform of decades-old policy happening quickly.

"One would expect, with everything else that's happening [in US- Cuba relations], that migration policy would have to regularize," says Eric Farnsworth, a former White House adviser on the Americas who is now vice president of the Americas Society-Council of the Americas in Washington. "But it's been on separate tracks since almost forever," he adds, "so I wouldn't expect that process of reforming migration policy to happen overnight."

Growing doubts about the future of US immigration policy as it pertains to Cubans and mounting demands for it to change are together having some unintended consequences, among them:

- Causing a spike over the past month or so in the number of Cubans who - fearing Cuba's special status is about to end - have taken to the seas to try to reach US soil.

- Widening a split in the Cuban-American community between generally older, more adamantly anti-Castro members who (like Rubio) want to see US laws focused on rescuing the island's politically persecuted, and the generally younger and less politically motivated recent arrivals who don't want to lose the "golden ticket" of current immigration law.

- Making strange bedfellows of some Cuban-American members of Congress, including Rubio, and the Cuban government, with both calling for changes in the US laws granting automatic asylum to all Cubans reaching the US.

Social media sites and chat rooms serving the Cuban immigrant community and Cubans aspiring to make the trek to Miami have been full recently of warnings that coming changes are making departure a now-or-never proposition.

Smugglers and migration advocates have been busy telling Cubans that "normalization" of relations will soon deprive Cubans of their special immigration status - echoing the advice that smugglers gave Central Americans last summer to send their children to the US to take advantage of supposed (though as it turned out, nonexistent) special asylum provisions. …

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