Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Time to revisit special treatment for Cubans who aren’t refugees

This is the hardest column I’ve ever had to write.

As a Cuban refugee who found safe haven in this country 46 years ago, it pains me to advocate closing the door on others. But enough is enough. Evidence has been mounting for far too many years that wholesale fraud is being committed by Cubans taking advantage of the extraordinary privileges that U.S. immigration law bestows only upon them.

Cases of Medicare and Medicaid embezzlement by recent waves of Cuban immigrants — now living as U.S. fugitives in Cuba and enjoying their stolen wealth — have been well documented in federal court and by the Miami Herald. And now a year-long investigation by the Sun Sentinel, based on hundreds of documents and reporting trips to Cuba, highlights widespread abuse and theft at a cost to U.S. taxpayers in excess of $2 billion.

The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 has become a revolving door for these thieves to obtain easy access to Florida, become U.S. residents and return to Cuba to live on fraudulently obtained money.  

Among the abuses: People 65 and older who arrive, file for residency, stay long enough to get social security and welfare, then return to Cuba to live on the money, sent by relatives here who get a cut of the action; and people who claim disability from the trauma of crossing the sea or borders to get extra aid, then work off the books.

“Word has gotten out that this is how you collect from the United States and live well in Cuba,” immigration attorney Grisel Ybarra told me. Or in third countries.

The unique opportunity to jump to the front of the worldwide immigration line under the CAA is also extended to non-Cubans living elsewhere who have never set a foot in Cuba and whose only relation to the island is a parent of Cuban origin.

It’s immoral that people fleeing bombs, ethnic cleansing, gang warfare, rape and murder have to stand in line behind people who no longer claim or falsely claim political persecution, and are only here for economic and lifestyle reasons.

Cubans with legitimate claims to refuge should continue to find an open door, but it’s time to take a hard look at the fraud and demand congressional action to update the CAA.

I believe in the humanitarian role of a country open to refugees and in the economic benefit generated by the energy of hard-working immigrants. But an out-of-date law meant to protect the politically persecuted is being made a mockery of by people cashing in on the generosity of Americans.

Elderly Cuban Americans who’ve worked hard in factories all their lives often get less than $500 a month in social security benefits, while newcomers are given $773 with no oversight.

“It’s not that fraud is only found in this generation,” Ybarra said, “but committing fraud used to carry a stigma. Now, they think it’s a right. They don’t see anything wrong with it because they come from a country where stealing from the government is a way of life. But we, the people, are the government here. If you take away from a system you didn’t invest in, you’re stealing from all of us.”