A Journey to Freedom

On November 2, 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which permitted Cuban nationals who have been physically present in the United States of America for at least one year, who have been admitted or paroled, and who are admissible as immigrants to the United States to apply to for adjustment of status to that of a legal permanent resident (“LPR”). As a legal permanent resident, they would be eligible for certain benefits, such as being eligible to stay and work in the country legally, being able to start a business, and eventually naturalizing and becoming a citizen of the United States. As a legal permanent resident from Cuba, they also enjoy certain benefits that are typically not available to LPR’s from other countries, such as food stamps and access to Medicaid.

This policy was later modified in 1995, in what has been commonly known as the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, which was the result of a negotiated settlement with between the Clinton Administration and the Cuban government. The policy provides that anyone who is caught in the waters between Cuba and the United States would be sent back to Cuba, whereas anyone who makes it to shore would be eligible to become a permanent resident, and would eventually have a path to becoming a citizen of the United States.

Recently, another modification has been considered for this special program. According to CNN’s article, “The last flight and first steps: ‘Historic’ surge of Cubans crossing into the U.S.”, thousands of Cubans have been continuing to flee north with many eventually reaching North America. “More than 35,600 Cubans have arrived at U.S. ports of entry since October 1 [2015], nearly three-quarters of them at the Texas border, according to U.S. figures.” As Cubans fled from the repression and financial hardships of their home country, they faced many challenges along the way in potential host countries, including low wages as undocumented workers in Ecuador, hiking for days through the Colombian jungle, facing rough terrain, armed groups and extortion by authorities, with some South American countries closing off their borders to the refugees or others threatening to deport them. When faced with these options, many chose to continue the journey into the United States where greater opportunities lay.

However, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, has proposed changes to limit benefits to only those Cuban refugees who are able to prove that they fear persecution in the home country, amongst other changes. While Senator Rubio is himself the son of Cuban immigrants, he believes that preferential treatment of Cuban refugees is no longer justified and hopes to end the program due to abuses of the financial aid system. Citing the loosened travel restrictions between the countries, he notes that “some Cubans with no intention of leaving their homeland permanently…are coming to South Florida dozens of times a year, filing for benefits in different locations and then having relatives wire them the money back in Cuba.” On average, a family of three can receive aid of more than $500 per month, a figure that approaches the Cuba’s per capita annual income. Under the measures supported by Senator Rubio, Cuban immigrants would eligible to obtain welfare benefits without waiting five years, but like other new arrivals they would have to provide evidence that they were personally persecuted in their homelands to receive aid.

Most notably, Senator Rubio has received bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives, mostly from representatives with interests in the Southern United States. In today’s tumultuous times, this type of bipartisan recognition of this complex problem is especially noteworthy. While the prevention and curtailment of abuses of the Cuban Adjustment Act should be widely supported, it still leaves doubts in the air and there is fear that some may slip through the cracks.

Senator Rubio seeks to limit benefits to those refugees who are able to prove the persecution that they faced in the home country. However, this may place an unusually high burden upon these refugees. By definition, a refugee “is a person who is outside their country of citizenship because they have well-founded grounds for fear of persecution…, and is unable to obtain sanctuary from their home country.” By nature, many refugees are forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs and the few possessions they are able to carry. These same refugees may have great difficulty in obtaining documentation or hard evidence of the abuse or persecution that they have suffered and may therefore find themselves in limbo without recourse in the United States. While some would argue that being in limbo in the United States is better than living in fear in Cuba, we as a nation should hold ourselves to a higher standard. While I agree with Senator Rubio’s goal to prevent abuses of the system, I believe that greater care should still be taken to minimize the marginalization of those who have already suffered so much to prevent the abuses of the few.

Cuban immigrants have much to offer the United States with their skills, their talents, and their culture. Some of them or even their children may rise to positions of power and influence, such as Senator Rubio has, and we as a country should continue to make decisions that are motivated by the principles on which our nation was founded upon, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and not out of fear.