U.S.-Cuba diplomacy: Will it jeopardize green cards?

“There are people who fear that the benefits Cubans get when they arrive will be taken away,” said Yuniel Germán Alonso, 33, who arrived Dec. 31 in the Florida Keys aboard a small boat with three other people.
“There are people who fear that the benefits Cubans get when they arrive will be taken away,” said Yuniel Germán Alonso, 33, who arrived Dec. 31 in the Florida Keys aboard a small boat with three other people. el Nuevo Herald

For almost 50 years, the Cuban Adjustment Act has allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants from the island to obtain green cards after they settle in the United States.

While many Cubans fear that the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana will bring about the demise of the Cuban Adjustment Act, some immigration experts say that is unlikely.

Unlike the order to normalize relations with Cuba, repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act cannot be done by presidential decree. It requires congressional involvement, according to immigration attorneys familiar with the issue.

“A lot needs to be done in order to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act,” Mario Urizar, who works for a prominent South Florida law firm, said in a written statement. “In order for this to happen the president and Congress need to work together in determining that Cuba has a democratically elected government — which is far from realization.

“But, what is true, is these recent talks between the U.S. and Cuba could lead to Cubans being physically deported. Currently, the majority of Cubans with Removal or Deportation orders ... are not subject to physical removal because Cuba will not accept them,” Urizar said. “As these talks with Cuba continue, I don’t see why the United States would pass on the opportunity to try to secure physical removals for these individuals back to Cuba.”

Urizar, as well as prominent immigration attory Ira Kurzban, said a change in the law could come in two ways: a presidential determination submitted to congressional committees that a democratically elected government is in power in Cuba or separate congressional action specifically repealing the law.

However, three prominent Republican Cuban-American lawmakers from Florida — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart — said improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba may have an impact on the Cuban Adjustment Act.

“The president’s egregious concessions to the Castro regime clearly put the future of the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act in jeopardy,” Diaz-Balart said in an email to el Nuevo Herald. “The president’s efforts to normalize relations with the Castro regime would seem to indicate that the human rights situation in Cuba has improved, when in fact it has deteriorated.”

“I don’t know of any organized efforts to repeal it, but I would venture to guess that there will be efforts to repeal it by some,” Rubio said during a press briefing last week.

Ros-Lehtinen said in an email to el Nuevo Herald that it’s still unclear what impact the Cuba policy shift will have on the Cuban Adjustment Act.

“Whether the Cuban Adjustment Act will be debated in an isolated manner or as part of a larger immigration package is still unknown,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

On Friday, Ros-Lehtinen joined other Cuban-American lawmakers — among them Diaz-Balart and U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, as well as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires and West Virginia Rep. Alex Mooney — in sending a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the administration to “immediately halt its normalization efforts toward Cuba and the Castro dictatorship.”

The fate of the landmark Cuban Adjustment Act is now a focus of debate both in South Florida and Cuba and may be behind an uptick in the number of Cuban migrants trying to reach U.S. shores on rafts.

Since President Barack Obama announced his Cuba policy shift Dec. 17, there has been a significant spike in the Cuban migrant flow in the Florida Straits, said Coast Guard Miami spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma.

Between Dec. 1 and Dec. 16. only 132 Cuban rafters landed on U.S. beaches or were interdicted or sighted at sea near Florida. But between Dec. 17 and Jan. 1, at least 421 Cubans landed or were sighted or interdicted, Somma said.

Increased interdictions have led to an increased number of Cubans being returned to the island.

Last week, the Coast Guard repatriated 121 Cuban migrants who had been picked up at sea in seven separate interdiction events near the Florida coast. It was one of the largest repatriations in recent times. The Coast Guard, in a statement, said it was increasing its patrolling of the Florida Straits “in response to the surge of illegal migration attempts into the United States” by Cuban migrants.

Under current policy, Cuban migrants interdicted at sea are generally returned to Cuba while those who make it to U.S. soil are allowed to stay and can apply for a green card after a year and a day in the country. The wet-foot/dry-foot policy, implemented in the mid-1990s as a result of a rafter exodus, derives from the Cuban Adjustment Act that took effect in 1966 to streamline the green card adjustment process and asylum proceedings for Cuban migrants.

Recently arrived Cuban migrants, interviewed last week outside the Doral offices of Church World Service, one of the service agencies that assist migrants in resettlement, said many people on the island are planning to leave by boat because of the widespread belief that the demise of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet-foot/dry-foot policy is imminent.

“There are people who fear that the benefits Cubans get when they arrive will be taken away,” said Yuniel Germán Alonso, 33, who arrived Dec. 31 in the Florida Keys aboard a small boat with three other people.

Yoandri Usatorres Cutiño, 31, who arrived in Miami on Jan. 2 after crossing the Texas border at Laredo on New Year’s Day, echoed Alonso’s analysis.

“Many more people are going to try to come to the United States from Cuba because of the overall fear that soon the welcoming door will be shut,” said Cutiño.

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