Sen. Marco Rubio, who based his presidential bid this year in part on his personal story as the son of poor Cuban immigrants, on Wednesday urged Congress to end a decades-old program that’s enabled immigrants from the island to get welfare benefits from the moment they set foot on American soil.
In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, Rubio, who ended his White House bid last month after badly losing Florida’s GOP primary, said Cuban immigrants no longer deserved special treatment.
“As many of you know, I am the son of Cuban immigrants,” the Miamian told his colleagues. “I live in a community where Cuban exiles have had an indelible imprint in our country, on the state of Florida and in South Florida in particular. And yet I stand here today to say that this provision of law, this distinction, is no longer justified.”
Rubio’s proposal would end automatic refugee status for Cubans and place them in the same category as other immigrants. He offered it as an amendment to a bill authorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which is before the Senate this week.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Kendall Republican and fellow Cuban-American, is sponsoring a similar measure in the House of Representatives.
“As the Senate works through their amendment process, I will continue to build bipartisan support amongst House colleagues for this critical legislation and explore all paths forward in getting the bill signed into law,” Curbelo told McClatchy on Wednesday.
Haitians are the only other immigrant group that gets automatic refugee status upon entering the United States. Rubio’s legislation would not affect their status.
All four Cuban-American members of Congress from South Florida support ending automatic refugee status for Cuban immigrants.
Thanks to a major welfare overhaul two decades ago by President Bill Clinton working with congressional Republicans, other immigrants are ineligible for welfare benefits for their first five years in the United States.
Some immigrants can get aid earlier, but they must prove that they are political refugees who were persecuted in their homelands; Cubans don’t have to prove persecution and receive refugee status immediately.
Support for the provision has faded as tales of abuses of the benefits have been revealed, even as some Cuban-Americans have asserted that the Cuban government has cracked down on dissidents since President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Havana last year. Obama made a historic visit to Cuba last month.
Rubio told a gripping tale of alleged abuse of the privileged status, noting that many Cubans who are granted the status arrive in the United States via Central America, working their way north through Mexico before crossing into the United States.
It’s really about respecting the generosity of the United States in providing refuge to Cubans.
Ana Carbonell, White Rose Institute
“A significant number of people are drawn to this country from Cuba because they know when they arrive they can step foot on dry land, they will immediately receive status and they immediately qualify for a package of federal benefits that no other immigrant group would qualify for unless they can prove they’re refugees,” Rubio said.
“This current policy is not just being abused, it’s hurting the American taxpayers,” said Rubio, who is not seeking re-election to the Senate. “There are reports that indicate that financial support for Cuban immigrants exceeds $680 million in the year 2014 alone, and those numbers, by the way, have quite frankly gone up since then.”
Among the 43,000 Cubans who entered the United States last year, about 10,000 came directly to Miami, with most of the rest crossing the Mexican border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data assembled by the Pew Research Center in Washington.
10,000 The number of Cubans who arrived in Miami last year, more than double the figure in 2014.
Rubio described a still-worse form of abuse. With travel restrictions loosened between the two countries, some Cubans with no intention of leaving their homeland permanently, he said, are coming to South Florida dozens of times a year, filing for benefits in different locations and then having relatives wire them the money back in Cuba.
“It is difficult to justify refugee benefits for people who are arriving in the United States and are immediately traveling repeatedly back to the nation they claim to be fleeing,” Rubio said.
With welfare cash payments in Florida averaging more than $500 a month for a family of three, Cubans can receive aid that approaches their homeland’s per capita annual income of about $7,567, according to the World Bank.
Ana Carbonell, former spokeswoman for former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and head of the White Rose Institute, a nonprofit group in Coral Gables, said she and other leaders of South Florida’s Cuban-American community were aware of the problems cited by Rubio and supported his efforts to repair them.
“It’s really about respecting the generosity of the United States in providing refuge to Cubans,” Carbonell told McClatchy. “The (Rubio) legislation reminds folks of not letting that generosity be abused so that folks who are truly needy of that assistance can continue to have it provided to them on the basis of the law.”
Under the measures by Rubio and Curbelo, Cuban immigrants would be able to obtain welfare benefits without waiting five years, but like other new arrivals they would have to provide evidence that they were personally persecuted in their homelands to get the aid.
Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona have co-sponsored Rubio’s amendment. In the House, Curbelo’s bill has bipartisan support, with Democratic Reps. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston and Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach co-sponsoring it along with Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both of Miami, plus 30 other Democrats and Republicans elsewhere in Florida and other states.
“As tens of thousands of people diligently make their way through our immigration system from all over the world, this bill takes one small but important step in preventing the fraudulent and abusive practices of those few individuals who would take advantage of the rights afforded to such a vulnerable population,” Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, said Wednesday.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose