Fifty years ago, in a speech delivered on the site in New York Harbor that is home to the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon Johnson made a solemn vow: “I declare this afternoon to the people of Cuba that those who seek refuge here in America will find it.”
One year later, the pledge he made in October 1965 became law in the form of the Cuban Adjustment Act, signed on Nov. 2, 1966.
It proved a godsend for the beleaguered people of Cuba, betrayed by a gang of communist despots intent on establishing a totalitarian regime that, incredibly, survives to this day.
The law offers Cubans who arrive in this country a unique and speedy pathway to legal residency and citizenship available to no other immigrants from anywhere else. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Cubans seeking a better life arrived in this country. In 2009, the Congressional Research Service noted: “Cuba consistently ranks among the top 10 source countries for legal permanent residents.”
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South Florida, home of the exile community, and America in general have been enriched by their presence.
The gift of an open-door policy for Cubans has been repaid many times over by their economic and cultural contributions to the country that became their new home, and to which they pledged fealty.
The world has changed in significant ways since 1965, but the despotic nature of the Cuban regime has not. Cuba remains frozen, in the grip of the same barbudos who seized control in 1959. Their beards are gone, but time has not diminished their lust for absolute power.
What has undeniably changed, however, is the nature of Cuban migrants arriving in this country. The evidence that many are no longer political refugees or individual victims of political persecution has been apparent for years.
They see the 1966 law more as an inducement to migrate to this country in search of a better life and rarely, if ever, consider the political situation in Cuba. Nowadays some even bring their pets!
The latest exodus, using Guatemala and a route through Mexico as a trampoline to bounce across the U.S. border, was amply documented in a recent Miami Herald series.
As with most migrants from Cuba over the last decade or more, they are young, motivated and desperate for a chance to obtain something better than what they have in Cuba. But political persecution is rarely mentioned as a factor.
And those Cubans who are, in fact, targets of persecution — prominent dissidents like Berta Soler, Antonio Rodiles, and Jorge Luis García Pérez (“Antúnez”) — are free to come and go from Cuba, usually. In most cases, they have made the courageous decision not to leave permanently, regardless of the painful consequences.
These facts should compel a reconsideration of the Cuban Adjustment Act, whether it still serves a useful purpose and whether the law conveys benefits no longer justified by current circumstances.
Ironically, the case could be made that it is precisely the victims of political repression that the Cuban Adjustment Act was designed to help who are not using it.
And those who are not motivated by political considerations are the ones most likely to take advantage of it.
And take advantage they do. Flagrant abuses of the most generous provisions of laws designed to help Cuban migrants have prompted Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami to consider changes. Now is the time.
Tomorrow: Abuses and fixes.