Repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Cubans camp out at the Peñas Blancas border crossing in Costa Rica earlier this year hoping to reach the U.S. border with Mexico.
Cubans camp out at the Peñas Blancas border crossing in Costa Rica earlier this year hoping to reach the U.S. border with Mexico. JIM WYSS

Shame on the Senate for refusing to consider Sen. Marco Rubio’s attempt last week to stop the much-abused program of welfare benefits for newly arrived Cuban migrants. What began decades ago as a well-intentioned effort to help the neediest exiles has become a giveaway for some undeserving recipients.

The Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 gives Cuban migrants access to federal aid — Supplemental Security Income and much more — without being means tested. As we have pointed out before, the freeloaders among them sign up, then return home to enjoy the benefits.

Give Sen. Rubio an A for effort on this one. Give the Senate an F. It’s hard to blame the senator for expressing frustration with quaint Senate customs that prevented a vote on a measure enjoying bipartisan support from prominent Florida Democrats like Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party chair.

The policy was designed around the time of the Mariel exodus, when tens of thousands of refugees fled persecution by the Castro regime. Persecution still exists, sadly. See the Human Rights Report issued by the U.S. State Department last week.

At the same time, no one can deny that times have changed in the half-century since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers Cubans legal residency and a clear path to citizenship on terms much easier than those available to refugees from every other repressive regime.

Like the law that provides benefits for some Cuban refugees, it too was well intended, a recognition of the uniquely repressive regime built by Fidel Castro. Today, however, President Obama’s “normalization” policy reflects the changes of the post-Cold War era. It’s time to acknowledge that U.S. immigration law should also reflect those changes.

These days, real dissidents are able to leave Cuba and make a case for political asylum in the United States without relying on the Cuban Adjustment Act. As long as the Castro regime is in power, U.S. immigration law must remain generous for genuine Cuban dissidents and political exiles.

But for many others, political beliefs don’t figure into the equation. The prospect of legal residency in the United States is what drives the migration. Once here, they remit hundreds of millions of dollars back home, from which the government takes a cut. U.S. law acts as a safety valve to release internal discontent with conditions in Cuba, and, at the same time, lets the regime continue repressing those who remain behind. This is not what the law ever contemplated.

As long as the act remains law, it will remain a magnet for all Cubans, an enticement to undertake hazardous boat trips on leaky vessels that often end in disaster.

It’s also unfair to countries caught in between — Panama and Costa Rica, among others — who have to cope with the flood of Cuban migrants trying to reach the United States without taking to the seas. Today, thousands of Cubans in Ecuador are demanding an airlift to the U.S. border with Mexico so they can enter this country.

The Cuban Adjustment Act is a relic of the Cold War. The law will keep encouraging Cubans to come to this country as long as economic conditions on the island are less favorable than they are here — that is, for the foreseeable future. It’s time for Congress to acknowledge the obvious and repeal the law.