The most unusual of votes about U.S.-Cuba policy took place Wednesday — not in Washington or Havana, but in Miami.
After a wrought discussion, the Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously agreed to ask Congress to revise the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 federal law that allows Cubans, unlike any other foreigners, to apply for U.S. residency one year and one day after arriving.
As a local government, the commission has no foreign-policy authority. But as a legislative body in the home of the country’s largest Cuban community, the vote represents a symbolic acknowledgment — even from longtime hardliners — that at least portions of U.S.-Cuba policy needs a fresh look.
“This is a good thing that has been misused in some cases, but it doesn’t mean we have to throw it away,” Commissioner Javier Souto, a Cuban-born Republican, said of the CAA. “We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, the Republican son of Cuban immigrants who became U.S. residents thanks to the law, had proposed asking Congress to repeal it altogether — a bold request that drew attention among Cuban exiles already on edge about President Obama’s move to normalize relations with the island’s communist regime.
From the dais Wednesday, Barreiro dismissed criticism that he was jumping on the Obama administration’s bandwagon, or reacting to reports that have highlighted how criminals have abused the CAA’s privileges. He said he first asked the county attorney’s office to draft similar legislation in 2009.
The reason, according to Barreiro: Fidel and Raúl Castro have used to the CAA to their advantage, as a way to encourage dissidents to leave the island and stop posing a political threat. The law has also allowed the Castros to send spies to infiltrate the U.S., Barreiro said.
“On a micro level, on a personal level, I strongly believe it has helped, substantially, the individual Cubans who have come and been able to seek freedom and work hard for their family and have a prosperous life,” Barreiro said. “But on a macro level, on a large-scale policy issue for a regime — a totalitarian regime — unfortunately, I think it’s benefited the regime.”
His proposal prompted some of the five other Cuban Americans on the 13-member, Republican-majority board to relate personal histories about when and how their families left Cuba. A teary Rebeca Sosa, a Republican who left Cuba for Puerto Rico when she was 8, said she couldn’t support a repeal without the establishment of a Cuban democracy.
“I will never place my vote on knocking down something that has helped people who really escaped from that regime,” she said.
In the end, Barreiro accepted an amendment offered by Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Republican whose father is a Bay of Pigs veteran, asking Congress to “revisit and amend the Cuban Adjustment Act to ensure the continued protection of immigrants fleeing political persecution.”
Bovo cited past statements by Miami Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio, who have all endorsed revising the CAA to tighten its restrictions. They have characterized their goal as weeding out so-called economic refugees who return to Cuba as soon as they’re legally able, sometimes taking with them the wealth they have accumulated in the U.S.
Though the vote carried no foreign-policy weight — something commissioners repeatedly conceded — they took it seriously and, concerned that the measure could backfire on Barreiro, they praised him for his “courage” in bringing up a divisive and contentious question.
“I know there’s just a lot of pain and personal suffering, but let’s try to look forward,” said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, a Colombian-American Republican. “Let’s be bold and take a step that maybe will have some good ramifications.”