Cuban Adjustment Act inextricably tied to the embargo

U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has said she could support the Cuban Adjustment Act being “done away with.”
U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has said she could support the Cuban Adjustment Act being “done away with.” AP

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that the Cuban Adjustment Act — CAA — is not up for negotiation with the Cuban government, much to the chagrin of their counterparts in Havana.

But Cuban officials are not the only ones frustrated with the CAA, a 1966 law that allows any native or citizen of Cuba to become a permanent resident a year after being admitted or paroled into the United States. South Florida’s hardline members of Congress now wish the policy would disappear, and have no reservations about floating rumors of its impending demise.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told CBS Miami reporter Jim DeFede, “It wouldn’t break my heart if [the CAA] is done away with,” saying that many recent arrivals had lost the “privilege” because they were returning to Cuba without apparent fear of persecution.

It makes sense to call for the end of the CAA if you’re also calling on Congress to lift the trade embargo. After all, normalization means doing away with all exceptional treatment when it comes to Cuba. It is immoral to close the door on Cubans searching for a better life in the States, while at the same time upholding blanket sanctions that seek to strangle their country’s economy.

But many voices clamoring for the end of the CAA seem more interested in using it to drive a wedge within the Cuban-American electorate, obsessing over the distinction between “exiles” and the “recently arrived,” casting the former as the only ones who suffered political repression and worthy of special treatment. This is a peculiar argument, considering that 1. The CAA only requires its beneficiaries to be of Cuban origin, not political refugees, and 2. Cubans landing on our shores today are fleeing an economic system controlled by the same communist leaders as those who arrived here 50 years ago.

The debate also has a tawdry tendency to group Cuban criminals who commit healthcare fraud with regular Cubans crossing the Mexican border or returning to visit their families in Cuba after spending only a year in the United States — branding them all “abusers” of the privilege afforded by the CAA. “They’re coming here and they’re taking welfare benefits when they’ve never worked in the United States, they’ve never contributed to the greatness of our nation and they’re taking their money and going to Cuba,’’ Ros-Lehtinen told DeFede, without differentiating between those with ill intentions and the many more seeking to make an honest living in our country.

Our government can tackle these challenges without touching the CAA. Healthcare scammers are best dealt with through increased law enforcement and greater cooperation with Cuban officials. The Department of Homeland Security has discretionary authority over parole and inspection, with which it could control cross-border migration under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. And if the intent is to give new Cuban arrivals the same level of access to welfare benefits that other immigrants have, then revise the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

As for returning to Cuba after one year in the States, it is a privilege that should continue so long as the embargo remains in place, since it affords Cuban émigrés one of the precious few channels they have to support loved ones back home.

We must be mindful that loose talk and careless predictions about the end of the CAA can spur countless Cubans to risk their lives taking to the high seas in pursuit of U.S. residency.

Cubans are the only people who enjoy the special privilege afforded under the Cuban Adjustment Act. But Cuba is also the only country in the world against which the United States maintains codified economic sanctions that impact its entire population.

Thus, the fate of the Cuban Adjustment Act must be directly tied to that of the embargo. Eliminating one while preserving the other would only inflict greater pain on the Cuban people.

Ric Herrero is the executive director of #CubaNow.