Cubans fleeing oppression, or moving?

A Cuban migrant uses his phone at a shelter in La Cruz, Costa Rica.
A Cuban migrant uses his phone at a shelter in La Cruz, Costa Rica. AP

As the number of Cubans stranded in Central America continues to grow, and the impact of thousands of new migrants heading to the United States — and most likely Miami-Dade — fuels concerns, even hysteria, about the cost of this growing humanitarian crisis, it’s clear that the Obama administration needs to step in to control the flow.

So far, the State Department has been almost mum.

Last week Central American nations reached a deal to let the Cubans stuck in Costa Rica — 8,000 so far because Nicaragua closed its border to them weeks ago — continue their journey north to the United States. The plan would provide an airlift to Cubans starting in January from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then by bus to Mexico.

News organizations in Central America reported that U.S. officials were part of the talks, but a State Department official would only say on Tuesday that “we are aware of press reports that a deal has been reached to allow Cuban migrants to proceed north through Central America. We refer you to the involved host governments for details of the agreement. The United States is committed to supporting safe, orderly and legal migration from Cuba through the effective implementation of the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords.”

No doubt there is a growing crisis, and the United States needs to lend a helping hand. But make no mistake — the circumstances have changed in Cuba since the migration accords were crafted two decades ago.

Among the distinctions: Cubans were not allowed to travel without government permission; today most Cubans can travel outside the country and return. Those who left since the 1959 revolution until a few years ago had to leave all of their belongings, give up their homes, cars and anything else of value to the government.

Today, Cubans are allowed by the communist government to sell their homes and cars, and they are doing just that to get the thousands of dollars they need to pay “mules” to take them on a dangerous trek from Ecuador (where until recently they could board a plane from Havana without the need of a visa) to, eventually, the United States. Many then return to visit the island a year and a day after they left — and some do so even as they are getting U.S. government help like food stamps.

In the short term, the United States needs to move the new migrants who do not have family in South Florida to other parts of the country where they can be sponsored by church groups and families, similar to the programs put into place during the 1960s Freedom Flights and the 1980 Mariel exodus. These helped thousands find jobs and learn about the American way of life. In the longer term, the new U.S.-Cuba relationship warrants a true change in policy.

Cubans are “voting” with their feet, leaving a totalitarian system that has failed them, but there are many other immigrant groups who are doing the same, whether they are fleeing violence in Mexico or Guatemala or fleeing political repression in Venezuela or anywhere else.

The “wet foot, dry foot” policy that Cubans have enjoyed for 20 years can no longer stand the test of time. And the policy’s foundation, the coveted Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, is already under fire.

In his last year at the White House, President Obama should focus on finding a fair way to treat Cubans fleeing oppression, and distinguishing them from those who simply want to move on temporarily, benefiting from American benevolence.