A walk on the beach to count my blessings led me to understand with greater clarity the polarized debate on the Cuban Adjustment Act.
In this city of Botox, implants, and steroids, where people seem to avoid eye contact with a stranger, the walk got me into an authentic, profound dialogue with a newly arrived Cuban who needed barely an hour to share plenty of anecdotes that illustrate a new chapter in the Cuban exile community.
The hardships on the island had led him to spend $12,000 to escape clandestinely through Mexico, cross the U.S. border guided by “coyotes,” and stay here by invoking the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.
He then took shelter under the federal law that allows him to adjust his migration status to permanent resident after one year and one day. The government provides him with food stamps and other federal benefits. He is looking for work to begin to save money to travel to Cuba once he obtains his residency. He longs for his beloved wife and baby. He feels he cannot live without them.
His testimony caused me pain. I tried to offer words of encouragement. When we parted I found one more reason to thank my own blessings.
Stories like his surface everywhere in South Florida. There are Cubans who go back on vacation. Others take advantage of the trips to travel as “mules,” carrying an inventory of electronic gadgets and other gifts that in Cuba are basic necessities.
Any solidarity gesture is laudable. It is a noble thing that immigrants living in prosperous countries help the loved ones they left behind. Poverty pushes them to seek a full life — and share it.
Yet it is also undeniable that there are people abusing the U.S. government’s generosity. The Medicare scammers return to Cuba with impunity. And now, Havana’s new immigration policy that eases travel restrictions (though a visa is still required to enter the United States) and extends up to two years the time Cuban citizens can live abroad without losing their residence, makes it easier for Cubans to obtain permanent residency in the United States and then return to Cuba quickly enough to retain their Cuban residence.
This way they can travel from one country to the other of their own will, injecting funds to the impoverished Cuban economy.
Last week, at a question-and-answer session with the American Society of News Editors, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, reemphasized the need to examine and amend the Cuban Adjustment Act to stop those abuses and irregularities, a position supported by a segment of exiles in Miami with conservative values.
“I don’t criticize anyone who wants to go visit their mom or dad or their dying brother or sister in Cuba,” he said. “But I am telling you it gets very difficult to justify someone’s status as an exile and refugee when a year and a half after they get here they are flying back to that country over and over again.”
His speech, in tune with the ideology of Cuban-American U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, has prompted explosive criticism among some Cuban exiles who denounce the proposal as insensitive and lacking empathy with those who have family or friends in Cuba.
“We would be stabbing ourselves,” said Héctor Caraballo, president of the Cuban American Committee of the Democratic Party in Miami-Dade County. “It would be a serious mistake to try to change or adjust the Cuban Adjustment Act because, in the long term, it would lead to its elimination.”
Caraballo says that the Cuban residents in the United States who return to Cuba to visit family or friends help bring about an internal transformation, strengthening Cuba’s civil society and leading to a greater opening. Community leaders who share his liberal ideology defend Cubans who travel to the island arguing that they entered the United States through a family-reunification visa — not as political refugees.
The root of the problem is that the Cuban Adjustment Act was written in 1966 to address the political conditions in Cuba at that moment. Yet the majority of Cubans who seek shelter under the act today emigrated for economic reasons, as do non-Cuban immigrants who do not receive any of those benefits. All of that fosters inequality and criticism from U.S. immigration-rights advocates.
There is no doubt that Cubans continue being victims of the most corrupt and ruthless dictatorship in the hemisphere. But such human tragedy does not justify abusing the magnanimous immigration system of this country, a beacon of light that brightens a tempestuous sea, allowing us immigrants to anchor in the open arms of its piers.