Amend the Cuban Adjustment Act

Sunday, August 21, 2011
In today's Miami Herald:

Amend the Cuban Adjustment Act

by Mauricio Claver Carone

There's a fine line to be drawn between Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to relatives in Cuba and Cuban-Americans enjoying a cheap vacation on the island with a cursory nod to a second cousin. While the first is imbued with genuine humanitarian purpose, the latter is tantamount to tossing a financial lifeline to the Castros' repressive dictatorship.

Unfortunately, over the last two-years, the Obama administration has made crossing that line all too easy and done so at a time when the Castros' regime faces the greatest political, social and economic crisis of its 52-year history.

In May 2008, then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama declared that: "It's time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers" — a commendable humanitarian goal. In April 2009, then President Obama created a general license for Cuban-Americans to travel to the island without limitations, visiting as frequently and staying as long as they like.

Under this new policy, Cuban-Americans can justify trips to visit individuals up to three degrees of family relationships (e.g. second cousins). It allows them, regardless of whether they even know or intend to visit distant relatives, to live handsomely on and off the island with their U.S. dollars staying at beach-side properties, luxury hotels and splurging at " la chopin" (dollar stores) — all owned and operated by the government.

Accordingly, Cuban-American travel to Cuba has tripled from approximately 85,000 visits per year to approximately 300,000 in 2010. Most of the increase consists of travelers taking multiple trips per year. Adept at keeping their heads down and their mouths shut to avoid offending the Castros and being barred from the island, they have become one of the regime's top sources of revenue.

The Obama administration itself recognizes the bailout effect of what was intended to be a humanitarian gesture. In a June 2009 cable (released by Wikileaks) from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Chief of Mission Jonathan Farrar states clearly: "Today's Cuban economy is less vulnerable to a return to the lows of the Special Period thanks to more diversified sources of income and credits, a more resourceful Cuban population, and an actual (remittances and travel) and theoretical (end of the embargo) opening of U.S.-Cuban relations."

Nonetheless, the administration argues, the Cuban people — even those without families in the United States — benefit from a trickle-down effect. It's fascinating to see how an administration that challenges the notion of trickle-down economics in the U.S.'s open, capitalist economy can believe it works in Cuba's closed, totalitarian economy.

This policy of unlimited Cuban-American travel is raising questions on Capitol Hill about the Cuban Adjustment Act, which consequently is becoming contradictory and obsolete.

The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966 gives Cubans — once they reach the United States and stay for a year — a right to become legal, permanent residents. Cubans are the only nationality to which the U.S. Congress has awarded this special privilege.

The legislative history of the Act holds that immigrants from Cuba are refugees under international law. Under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, a refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

Undoubtedly, Cubans remain persecuted for their political opinions by the Castro regime, which remains as brutal as ever. They, thus, deserve to be paroled into the United States as refugees. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that Cuban-Americans traveling back and forth to Cuba, particularly those who recently arrived in the United States, but are on a plane heading back as soon as they become permanent residents, are refugees warranting the special privileges granted by the Act.

In 2006, then Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced legislation to repeal the Act. His effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but in this new 112th Congress — with a Republican majority that questions immigration policy generally and Democrats that oppose special privileges for Cubans versus other immigrant groups — the environment seems ripe for repeal.

Therefore, in an effort to save the original intent of the Act, Congress should take steps to amend it and make it consistent with refugee law as applied to Venezuelans, Iranians, Syrians, and other source-nations of refugees, whose asylum status may be terminated if they choose to return to their country of feared persecution, until they become U.S. citizens.

That would ensure the Act continues to protect Cuban refugees who are fleeing persecution without becoming a vehicle for economically sustaining their persecutors.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and founding editor of CapitolHillCubans.com in Washington, D.C.