U.S. immigration laws and policies regarding Cubans have reemerged into the spotlight. After a brief look at those laws and policies, we will examine the new controversy arising over Cubans in Central America.
U.S. Laws and Policies
In 1966, the U.S. adopted the Cuban Adjustment Act that provided certain immigration benefits to Cubans. In 1995 this statute was amended to allow anyone who fled Cuba and entered the U.S. to pursue permanent residency a year later.
In addition, the U.S. and Cuba in 1994 and 1995 entered into migration agreements to promote “safe, legal and orderly migration” between the two countries. Under one of its provisions, the U.S. agreed to stop permitting Cubans intercepted at sea to come to the U.S. On the other hand, this agreement did not touch on the U.S. practice and policy of admitting Cubans who arrive on land at a U.S. port of entry. This is the so-called U.S. “wet feet/dry feet” policy.
Since the U.S.-Cuba December 2014 rapprochement, the Cuban government repeatedly has complained about this Act and the wet feet/dry feet policy and has requested the U.S. to abolish them. The U.S., however, has consistently told the Cuban government that the U.S. was not planning to change its immigration policies regarding Cubans.
Current Issues About Cubans in Central America
As noted in an earlier post, since the December 2014 U.S.-Cuba rapprochement there have been increasing numbers of Cubans coming to the U.S. to take advantage of the provisions of the previously mentioned Act and policy before, they fear, those provisions will be rescinded. For example, more than 45,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. checkpoints along the Texas-Mexico border in the U.S. fiscal year ending September 30, 2015.
Many of the Cubans flew from Cuba to Ecuador, which allows them entry without visa; and from there they traveled by land through Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica with the objective of continuing through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. For all their current frustration over recent actions by Nicaragua, most of the Cubans’ anger is aimed at the Cuban government, which they accuse of cronyism, mismanaging the economy and limiting free speech. One of the Cubans, a teacher and a father of two, now in Costa Rica said that his grandmother had sold her house for $5,000 to pay for his passage to the U.S. and that he cannot return because his family is waiting for him to start sending money back.
This situation recently reached a new level with the precipitating events taking place in Central America. Over 1,500 Cubans on their migration have been in Costa Rica after initially being excluded from that country and then admitted after Costa Rica last Friday (November 13) said it would be issuing special seven-day transit visas to Cubans.
On Sunday (November 15), Nicaragua, a close ally of Cuba, closed its border with Costa Rica. This Nicaraguan action forced the Cubans to turn the Costa Rican side of a border station into a temporary shelter with makeshift beds, piles of luggage and improvised washing lines. Hundreds of others are being housed in buildings around a nearby small town.
Nicaragua simultaneously asserted that Costa Rica was creating a “humanitarian crisis” by allowing the Cubans into its country. Costa Rica was accused of “failing to comply with its obligations as a state” and of violating Nicaragua’s sovereignty.
The Nicaraguan complaint was confirmed the next day in a blistering press release in which it “deplores and condemns . . . the irresponsible, disrespectful attitude [towards] all international conventions and agreements on human mobility [by] Government of Costa Rica.” The latter allegedly had violated Nicaragua’s “national territory, our sovereignty” and had made “the unprecedented claim . . . [to the] right to determine the entry into our territory of people in a situation of illegality and violent behavior intended to” occur in Nicaragua. The statement also reported that on Tuesday (November 17), Nicaragua would bring this alleged “serious crisis” to the Security Commission of the Central American Integration System, SICA. Nicaragua also said it would present its complaint to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
Theses accusations immediately were rejected by Costa Rica, and on Tuesday (November 17) Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez proposed the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” for Cubans transiting Central America. “Countries have to prevent migrants falling into the hands of networks and coyotes, because remember that the migrants’ purpose is to arrive in the [U.S.] and we will try to do everything possible [for them] to achieve” that goal. The Foreign Minister also said that “Costa Rica is neither the origin nor the destination country for the Cubans, and the government has undertaken all necessary efforts to deal with this situation responsibly under the strict guidance of international treaties” and that he had not ruled out taking the migrant problem before the Organization of American States (OAS) and other international forums. In the meantime Costa Rica was trying to organize a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Central American countries and Mexico.
SICA’s Consideration of the Situation
As indicated above, Nicaragua’s complaint was considered on Tuesday by a subcommittee of the Security Commission of the Central American Integration System, SICA, in preparation for the Thursday meeting of the Commission.
At that later meeting, Nicaragua accused Costa Rica of attempting to avoid discussion of the issue at SICA and to “systematically block” Nicaragua’s request. It also was alleged that Costa Rica never warned Nicaragua that more than 1,900 Cubans were about to show up at the border. The Nicaragua Foreign Ministry’ s press release regarding this meeting again was blistering in its complaint against Costa Rica. It said the following:
- Nicaragua denounced “the systematic blocking [by] . . . Costa Rica” of SICA’s considering the “irregular and illegal migration of Cubans.”
- Nicaragua also denounced “the arrogance of Costa Rica . . . ignoring international law and agreements . . . has violated our territory, threatened and blocked Trade and International Freight, and is concentrating more Cuban citizens on our southern border, to pressure and blackmail our government.”
- Costa Rica’s suggested humanitarian corridor would subject “Americans, including children, to “hazards, even dying, in an effort to reach the [U.S.]”
- Nicaragua proposed that SICA demand that the U.S. provide reciprocity to Central American citizens seeking entry to the U.S. in the same manner that it treats Cuban migrants.
Costa Rica denied these allegations, and the subcommittee agreed on the need to see this issue from a holistic perspective and human rights, not as a security issue. Afterwards, Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister said, “The countries [of SICA] have reacted in a positive and supportive way. They have understood that the humanitarian aspect is at stake and should be tackled, comprehensively, by the entire region.”
On Monday (November 23) the SICA Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs along with others, by invitation, from Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico will meet to find a comprehensive solution to the situation.
Cuba’s Response to Central American Situation
On Tuesday (November 17), the Cuban Foreign Ministry issued a statement about the situation in Central America that gave greater prominence to its objection to the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act and the dry feet/wet feet policy. Here are the main points of the Cuba statement:
- These Cubans in Central America “have become victims of traffickers and criminal gangs which unscrupulously profit from their control of the passage of persons through South America, Central America and Mexico.”
- “Cuban authorities have maintained ongoing contact with the governments of the countries involved, with the goal of finding a rapid, appropriate solution, which would take into consideration the wellbeing of the Cuban citizens.”
- “The Ministry of Foreign Relations would like to emphasize that these citizens are victims of the politicization of the migration issue on the part of the United States government, the Cuban-American Adjustment Act, in particular, and the application of the so-called “wet foot-dry foot” policy, which gives Cubans differentiated treatment – the only one of its kind in the world – which admits them immediately and automatically, regardless of the route or means used, even if they arrive in an illegal manner to U.S. territory.”
- “This policy encourages irregular immigration from Cuba to the United States, and constitutes a violation of the letter and spirit of Migratory Accords currently in effect, in which both countries assumed the responsibility to guarantee legal, safe, orderly emigration.”
- The statement went on to object to another U.S. immigration policy affecting Cuba: “the U.S. government’s continued maintenance of the so-called Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program . . . to encourage Cuban doctors and other medical personnel to abandon their missions in third countries, and emigrate to the United States. This is a reprehensible practice, meant to damage Cuban cooperation programs, and deny Cuba and many countries the vital human resources they need.”
- “The Ministry of Foreign Relations reiterates once again that the ‘wet foot-dry foot’ policy and the ‘Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program’ are inconsistent with the current bilateral context, impede to the normalization of migratory relations between Cuba and the United States, and create problems for other countries.”
- “The Ministry of Foreign Relations confirms that Cuban citizens who have left the country legally, and abide by current Cuban migratory law, have the right to return to Cuba, if they so desire.”
I agree that special immigration benefits for Cubans arriving on land at U.S. ports of entry and the risk that they will be eliminated is prompting many Cubans to try to come to the U.S. as soon as possible. I also agree that these U.S. laws and policies should be eliminated as soon as possible. Although I am a retired attorney, I have not attempted to determine whether the Obama Administration on its own by executive order or changes in regulations could do this or whether it requires Congress to pass a bill to do this. (I would appreciate comments on this issue by those with more knowledge of the issues.)
I also agree that the U.S. as soon as possible should abolish the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program as discussed in prior posts. Again I have not attempted to determine whether the Obama Administration on its own by executive order or changes in regulations could do this or whether it requires Congress to pass a bill to do this. (I also would appreciate comments on this issue by those with more knowledge of the issues.)
I originally was baffled by the U.S.’ continued assertions that there would be no changes in U.S. immigration policies regarding Cuba because those policies, in my opinion, are so illogical and inappropriate for countries with normal relations. Now I suspect that those assertions were based upon the Administration’s assessment of the difficulty (or impossibility) in obtaining Congressional approval of any necessary legislative changes on these issues and the Administration’s belief or hope that such assertions would discourage Cubans from immediately accelerating their plans or desire to leave Cuba for the U.S.
I reach these conclusions even though I suspect that Nicaragua’s precipitating the current problem in Central America was at the request of its close ally, Cuba, because, in my opinion, (a) Nicaragua would not do anything regarding Cuba against the latter’s wishes; (b) Cuba is concerned about the number of Cubans leaving the island and with Nicaragua’s assistance perhaps could stop a major route for such an exodus; (c) Cuba would like to have another occasion or reason to blame the U.S. for the problem; and (d) Nicaragua’s complaints against Costa Rica are absurd.
Now we will see what happens next Monday at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the SICA members and their guests.
 U.S. Pub. L. 89-732, 80 Stat. 1161 (Nov. 7, 1966); U.S. Pub. L. 94-571, 90 Stat. 2703 (Oct. 20, 1976) U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, Green Card for a Cuban Native or Citizen; The Cuban Adjustment Act, Wikipedia; Moffett, U.S. Allows Cuban Migrants Different Treatment aboutnews; Wet feet/dry feet policy, Wikipedia; Johnson, Cuban Migration: Averting a Crisis, Imm. Policy Center (June 2003).
 E.g., Results of U.S.-Cuba Discussions After Ceremonial Opening of U.S. Embassy in Havana (Aug. 18, 2015).
 Salinas, Nicaragua deports hundreds of Cuban migrants back to Costa Rica, El Pais (Nov. 17, 2015); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Regional government seeks to arrange an appointment to find about our a migration of Cubans (Nov. 17, 2015) (Ministry’s English translation); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Government Rejects Accusations of Costa Rica Nicaragua Case for Cuban Migrants (Nov. 16, 2015); Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, Nota de Prensa (NP 060-2015) (Nov. 16, 2015); Tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica by Cuban migrants; convene meeting of SICA and Cuba blames US (Nov. 18, 2015); Murillo, Costa Rica struggling to deal with Cuban migrant crisis, El Pais (Nov. 19, 2015); Reuters, Stranded at Nicaragua Border, Cuban Migrants’ American Dream in Peril, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2015).
 Nicaragua Foreign Ministry Press Release, COMUNICADO “NICARAGUA DENUNCIA BLOQUEO SISTEMÁTICO DE COSTA RICA EN EL SICA A DISCUSIÓN SOBRE EMIGRACIÓN IRREGULAR EN LA REGIÓN CENTROAMERICANA, (NP-063-2015) (Nov. 19, 2015); Assoc. Press, Costa Rica Says Regional Bloc to Consider Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Nov. 19, 2015); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, SICA supports Costa Rica proposal for Council of Foreign Ministers of the region to find solution to migration crisis, (Nov. 19, 2015).
 SICA is the “institutional framework for Central American Regional Integration” that was created in 1991. Its current members are Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Its headquarters is in El Salvador.
 Ministry of Foreign Relations Statement on Migratory Policy, Granma (Nov. 18, 2015); Reuters, Cuba Blames U.S. for Migrant Crisis in Central America, N.Y. Times (Nov. 17, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cuba Blames US for Instigating Surge of Migrants From Island, N.Y. Times (Nov. 17, 2015).
 E.g., Results of U.S.-Cuba Discussions After Ceremonial Opening of U.S. Embassy in Havana (Aug. 18, 2015).
 E.g., New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel ( Nov. 23, 2014). Another blog post has rejected the U.S. claim that the service of Cuban medical personnel on that country’s foreign medical missions constitutes illegal forced labor.