Fred Grimm

Should Cuban migrants who occupied offshore lighthouse be allowed to stay?

A group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key were in a standoff with Coast Guard on May 20, 2016.
A group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key were in a standoff with Coast Guard on May 20, 2016.

Trying to explain the rationale behind “wet foot/dry foot” to relatives back in Des Moines would be tough enough. Don’t even bother broaching the legal status of the 21 Cuban migrants apprehended at an offshore lighthouse 6.5 miles off Sugarloaf Key.

A lawsuit was filed in their behalf Tuesday contending that when most of the migrants abandoned their rickety boat and climbed up a metal ladder onto the decommissioned lighthouse, they had reached official U.S. territory, achieving the magic transition from wet foot to dry foot.

Well, not exactly dry. The American Shoal lighthouse, a cast-iron structure built in 1880, stands over the ocean surface on eight metal stilts that had been driven into an underwater reef. With no dry land anywhere in the vicinity. It was left to a federal judge to decided how much that matters. (A hearing has been set for June 2.)

Meanwhile, the would-be refugees remained in legal limbo, floating around on a Coast Guard cutter while lawyers back in Miami tussle over this latest crazy twist in an anachronistic policy. Because if the Cubans are judged to have been intercepted by the Coast Guard at sea, they’ll be repatriated back to Cuba. But the 21 migrants abandoned their boat on the morning of May 20 when a Coast Guard cutter approached their boat. Nineteen of them managed to swim to the lighthouse. They stayed for nearly eight hours, before finally boarding the vessel. (The other two were reportedly were picked up by the cutter without actually reaching the lighthouse — adding another complication to the case.)

According to The Associated Press, the lawsuit contends: “By virtue of their entry and arrival on U.S. territory, the American Shoal lighthouse, the 21 refugees have become entitled to certain rights.”

Those “certain rights” include extraordinary benefits, automatically afforded Cuban migrants under the old Cuban Adjustment Act that assumes that they’ve all fled political repression. It doesn’t matter that few believe that anymore.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio gave a speech from the Senate floor asking for support for a bill that “ends the automatic assumption in U.S. law that all Cuban immigrants are refugees.” Rubio pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis concluding that ending automatic refugee status and the special benefits would save taxpayers $2.5 billion over the next decade.

The CBO may have low-balled Rubio. Last year, a Sun Sentinel investigation calculated that the special federal refugee assistance given to Cubans, along with food stamps and Social Security payments to the elderly and the disabled, cost taxpayers about $680 million a year. (Or $6.8 billion over a decade.)

What makes the expenditure maddening, at least to critics of the Cuban Adjustment Act, is that supposed exiles now freely go back and forth from Cuba. As Rubio said, refugees “seeking to flee oppression are now traveling back to Cuba, 15, 20, 30 times a year.”

Sen. Rubio added, “The abuses we’ve now seen are extensive — the stories of people that are actually living in Cuba but they’re collecting government benefits in America and their family is wiring the money to them.” Rubio said this can continue “for months, sometimes years at a time. It’s an outrage, it’s an abuse.”

The Herald, meanwhile, has documented multimillion-dollar cases of Medicaid fraud committed by Cuban migrants who have fled back to Cuba with their stolen riches.

“For too long, America’s generosity has been abused,” U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a statement issued Wednesday. Curbelo is among more than 50 co-sponsors of the House version of the bipartisan reform bill.

Not that it matters. No one has voiced a coherent argument against fixing wet foot/dry foot, yet there’s not much chance of passage in a Congress that seems to be in a perpetual state of paralysis.

All this talk about repairing the Cuban Adjustment Act may not amount to much in the U.S., but it has produced profound repercussions in Cuba. Rumors that the Americans intend to cut off automatic refugee status and special benefits have set off a wave of Cuban migrants heading north. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that during fiscal year 2015, 43,154 Cuban migrants entered the U.S. without visas — a 78 percent increase over the previous year. In the first half of the current fiscal year (beginning October 2015), 33,635 more Cubans were admitted and granted refugee status.

Most are coming out of Central America and entering through Texas. The Coast Guard has also reported a surge of Cubans making their way on boats (often operated by smugglers) to Florida and to Mona Island, in the Puerto Rican archipelago.

The rocky island, 41 miles off the Puerto Rican coast, has no permanent residents. No matter. Mona’s Cuban arrivals apparently meet wet foot/dry foot’s mystifying criteria for automatic U.S. refugee status. With benefits, of course.