Op-Ed

It’s time to rescind the Cuban Adjustment Act

A Cuban migrant holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Help us Obama” during a protest in Costa Rica last week.
A Cuban migrant holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Help us Obama” during a protest in Costa Rica last week. AP

We have a refugee crisis. No, not the one with Syrians, the one with Cubans.

About 2,000 Cubans are stuck in Costa Rica because Nicaragua will not let them pass through, as thousands of Cubans have done in the past en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The number of Cubans who’ve recently taken this land route — arduous, lengthy, costly and dangerous but less so than taking to the sea — is staggering: 45,000 Cubans have presented themselves at U.S. border crossings with Mexico in the year ending Sept. 20.

Thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), all these Cubans had to do was show up and say, “Soy Cubano” and they were in automatically. No visa required and not much background checking either. It’s not as if Customs and Border Protection can call up the cops in, say, Holguin, and ask if the Cuban migrant in question has a criminal record. And could we trust the Cubans even if they answered? Besides, their social malcontent is our welcome freedom seeker.

But all are welcomed who arrive from Cuba by land, air or sea — as long as those coming by sea set foot on U.S. soil. The ones picked up at sea are sent back. That wet foot/dry foot policy is the result of the immigration accords of the mid-’90s. I was there to cover those talks in Havana and New York. They made sense then; they don’t now.

This policy provides a dangerous incentive for desperate Cubans to try crossing the perilous Florida Straits. Or to take that land route from Ecuador north to the Texas border. How does the CAA make sense in 2015 when Cuba and U.S. have established diplomatic relations? How does wet foot/dry foot still apply between countries that have started down a path toward normalization?

It’s time to get rid of wet foot/dry foot and rescind the CAA. There were a host of valid reasons for passing the CAA in 1966 — the failure of the U.S. to support the brave Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs; Castro’s embrace of communism and establishment of a totalitarian state; his theft of millions of dollars in U.S.-owned property. The CAA was America’s way of telling the Cuban people that the U.S. was a beacon of freedom and democracy that would take in and resettle any Cuban who could find a way out.

It made perfect sense in 1966 and for decades afterward. But it hasn’t made sense for a long time. It’s subject to widespread abuse, as was vividly documented in a series of excellent reports in the Sun-Sentinel. They showed that Cubans who survived there by gaming the system came here and gamed ours. Cubans are far and away the leaders in major Medicare fraud and many other criminal scams. Some elderly Cubans have come to the U.S., applied for Social Security benefits (even though they never worked here or paid into the system), and then returned to Cuba to enjoy their free ride.

Perhaps the most egregious abuse of the CAA are Cubans who enter the U.S. seeking political asylum, wait a year to become legal residents, and then return to Cuba regularly on business or pleasure — the country where they swore they’d been persecuted. Basta.

It’s all manifestly unfair to U.S. taxpayers who shelled out $680 million last year for welfare benefits for Cuban refugees. Most deserve those benefits and quickly become self-supporting and productive members of the community. But if they’re economic rather than political refugees why do they get a special treatment not afforded Haitians, Dominicans, Hondurans or citizens of any other country who long to get aboard Lifeboat America? Those foreign applicants wait in line for years to get a coveted U.S. visa. Cubans merely show up and get in.

It’s a fairness issue, but it’s also a money issue. U.S. taxpayers last year shelled out about $680 million for welfare benefits for Cuban immigrants. The great majority deserve our help. However, those who scam our system and disrespect our generosity do not. It’s time to even the playing field for Cuban refugees.

All these abuses are well known and yet Congress has done nothing to correct them. South Florida members of Congress talk a good game on CAA reform, but haven’t acted. They’ve put finding a solution on the plate of freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who promises to fix the CAA. He has good intentions but no clout. Where are our veteran lawmakers like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Mario Diaz-Balart on this issue? Where’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Marco Rubio?

Miami would be a pleasant and moderately successful city because of its climate and geography if a million Cubans hadn’t settled here after Castro took power. But come they did and provided the spark that made Miami come alive and be great. We’re a city that’s ready to welcome still more legitimate Cuban refugees with open arms. The others need to get in line like everyone else.

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