Cuban Migration Developments  

In recent weeks there have been significant developments regarding Cubans leaving, and returning to, the island and possible changes to U.S. laws regarding Cubans coming to the U.S.

Cuban Migrants in Central America

  1. “Test Plan” for Transit of Cuban Migrants to U.S.

As reported in prior posts, about 8,000 Cuban migrants have been stranded in Costa Rica on their journeys to the U.S., but last December Mexico and certain Central American governments agreed on a “test plan” to transport the migrants via air and bus from Costa Rica through El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to the U.S. border.[1]

On January 12 the initial group of 180 of these migrants started this journey, and on the next morning they had arrived in Ciudad Hidalgo on the Honduras-Mexico border, where they were granted 20-day transit visas. They were then put on their own to get to the Mexico-U.S. border. The first of them reached the Mexico-U.S. border at Laredo, Texas on the evening of January 14. And on January 18 a group of 30 arrived in Florida (Tampa, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Miami).[2]

In anticipation of the arrival of many of these Cubans in the Miami, Florida area, the mayors of Miami-Dade County in Florida have asked the federal government for funds to assist in welcoming many of those Cubans who are expected to come to their county.[3]

  1. Evaluation of “Test Plan[4]
Guatemala Meeting
Guatemala Meeting

On January 20 Guatemala hosted a meeting with representatives of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Belize and members of the International Organization for Migration to review the operation of the “test plan.” During the meeting an analysis of the operation was performed and each country presented their experience in the management of migration and visa issues as well as logistics and security. They concluded that the process was successful and that the passage of the Cuban migrants was made in a legal, orderly, safe and transparent manner. They also agreed to collaborate better and improve coordination needed for future transfers and to meet again on February 15 to review further progress.

  1. Future Transit of Cuban Migrants to the U.S.

The representatives at the January 20 meeting also concluded to resume the transit of Cubans in Costa Rica on February 4 with two weekly flights (February 9, 11, 16, 18, 23 and 25) from Costa Rica to El Salvador followed by their busing to the Honduras-Mexico border and thence on their own to the Mexico-U.S. border. Priority will be given to households with pregnant women or children, with earlier dates of entry into Costa Rica, the numbers on their Costa Rica visas and the financial resources to pay for the transit. In addition, Costa Rican officials will visit Cubans remaining in shelters to renew their visas.

Each Cuban will pay $555 for the charter flight, the bus and food arranged by a travel agency. Once in Mexico, the Cubans will receive a 20-day transit visa to make it on their own to the U.S. border. U.S. and Mexican officials hope is to hatch a similar plan for the 3,000 Cubans stranded in Panama.

 Cuban Migrants By Sea

On May 2, 1995, in response to a large increase in Cubans who were attempting to make the dangerous crossing of the Caribbean Sea to get to Florida, the U.S. and Cuba entered into an agreement whereby the two countries “reaffirm their common interest in preventing unsafe departures from Cuba. Effective immediately, Cuban migrants intercepted at sea by the [U.S.] and attempting to enter the [U.S.] will be taken to Cuba.”[5]

Since then, the U.S. has done just that. Such an agreement and practice, it was believed, would discourage other Cubans from attempting such dangerous journeys. This then became known as the “wet feet” part of the U.S. disjunctive dry feet/wet feet policy. Here are the statistics on such interdictions:[6]

Fiscal Year

(Oct.1-Sept. 30)

Number of

Interdictions

1995    525
1996    411
1997    421
1998    903
1999 1,619
2000 1,000
2001    777
2002 666
2003 1,555
2004 1,225
2005 2,712
2006 2,810
2007 2,868
2008 2,216
2009    799
2010    422
2011    985
2012 1,275
2013 1,357
2014 2,111
2015 2,924

So far in Fiscal 2016 (10/01/15-01/14/16), the U.S. Coast Guard estimates that 1,942 Cubans have been interdicted at sea or have attempted to land in the U.S. or have actually landed by sea. For the first half of January 2016 alone, a total of 396 Cuban migrants have been picked up in the waters between Florida and Cuba and returned to Cuba. The increases in Fiscal 2015 and so far in Fiscal 2016 are believed to have been caused by the December 2014 announcement of normalization between the two countries and Cubans’ concern that the U.S. might end its special immigration benefits for Cubans.[7]

In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard reports that more of the Cubans who have been interdicted and put on Coast Guard vessels are jumping overboard, trying to poison themselves or making self-inflicted wounds in attempts to be taken to U.S. shore. As a result the Guard has added security personnel on the vessels.

A Guard official recently said, “Immigration policies have not changed, and we urge people not to take to the ocean in unseaworthy vessels. It is illegal and extremely dangerous.”

Some Cubans Returning to Cuba[8]

Nick Miroff of the Washington Post reports there is a “growing number of Cubans who have opted to move back to the island in recent years as the Castro government eases its rigid immigration rules. The returnees are a smaller, quieter counter-current to the surge of Cubans leaving, and their arrival suggests a more dynamic future when their compatriots may come and go with greater ease, helping to rebuild Cuba with earnings from abroad.”

Indeed, Miroff says, these returnees or “repatriates are not coming back for socialism. They are coming back as capitalists. . . . [or as] trailblazing entrepreneurs. Prompted by President Raúl Castro’s limited opening to small business and his 2011 move allowing Cubans to buy and sell real estate, the repatriates are using money saved abroad to acquire property and open private restaurants, guesthouses, spas and retail shops.”

In 2012, Cuban immigration officials said they were processing about 1,000 repatriation applications each year. “The numbers appear to have increased since then, at least judging from anecdotal evidence and the proliferation of new small businesses in Havana run by returnees.”

“Many of the repatriates . . . are returning from Europe and Latin America. Cubans in the [U.S.] may be more reluctant to return to the island because of their relatively high incomes . . . [in the U.S. and because U.S.] economic sanctions also make it essentially illegal for any U.S. resident to go to Cuba and run a business. And the ability to buy property remains mostly restricted to Cubans who live on the island.”

Possible Changes in U.S. Immigration Laws Regarding Cubans

 As noted in previous posts, Cuba and now Central American countries have been vigorous opponents of the U.S. policy of allowing Cubans who arrive on land to come into the U.S. without visas, and the U.S. Administration repeatedly has said it has no intentions of changing that policy.

In the meantime, the only congressional bill to end the special treatment for Cubans arriving by land at the U.S. border that was offered by Representative Paul Gosar (Rep., AZ)—Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015 (H.R.3818)– has gained little support beyond its nine cosponsors.[9]

Under another law, Cubans who have arrived in the U.S. by land are automatically eligible for federal public assistance under the Refugee Resettlement Program. On January 12, 2016, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, introduced a bill to end these automatic federal benefits.[10]

The bill, The Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act of 2016 (S.2441), which has no cosponsors and which was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, would terminate the automatic eligibility for federal public assistance for Cuban nationals under the Refugee Resettlement Program, while maintaining it for those that have been persecuted that are in need of resettlement assistance.

Rubio said, ““It is outrageous whenever the American people’s generosity is exploited. It is particularly outrageous when individuals who claim to be fleeing repression in Cuba are welcomed and allowed to ‎collect federal assistance based on their plight, only to return often to the very place they claimed to be fleeing. The weaknesses in our current law not only allow the flow of American tax dollars into the Castro regime’s coffers, it also undermines the legitimate cause of those Cubans who are truly fleeing repression and political persecution.”

Rubio’s rationale for this bill would also justify the U.S.’ ending its previously mentioned “dry feet” immigration policy.

Yet another special U.S. immigration program for Cubans—the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—is under consideration for cancellation by the Obama Administration.[11]

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[1] Cubans in Central America Provide Cuba with an Opportunity to Reiterate Its Objections to U.S. Immigration Policies (Nov. 20, 2015); Update on Cuban Migrants in Central America (Nov. 27, 2015); Status of Cuban Migrants in Central America Still Unresolved (Dec. 11, 2015); Resolution of Problem of Cuban Migrants Stranded in Costa Rica (Dec. 30, 2015).

[2] Date set for the departure of first group of Cuban migrants from Costa Rica, Granma (Jan. 8, 2016); Robles, Cubans, Fearing Loss of Favored Status in U.S., Rush to Make an Arduous Journey, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2016); Reuters, First Group of Stranded Cuban Migrants Leave Costa Rica, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2016); Assoc. Press, Cubans Begin Pilot Transfer From Costa Rica to Mexico, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2016); Assoc. Press, Stranded Cuban Migrants Brought by Air, Bus to Mexico, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2016); Reuters, Mexico to Grant Transit Visas to Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2016); Perez & Cordoba, Stranded Cuban migrants brought by air, bus to Mexico, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2016); First group of Cuban migrants arrive in Mexico, Granma (Jan. 13, 2016); Assoc. Press, Stranded Cuban Migrants Make Plans to Cross Mexico, N.Y. Times (Jan. 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, First of 8,000 Stranded Cuban Migrants Cross Into US, N.Y. Times (Jan. 15, 2016); Barbero, The first Cubans stranded in Central America come to Miami, El Pais (Jan. 19, 2016).

[3] Barbero, Miami seeks help from Obama before the arrival of Cubans, El Pais (Jan. 7, 2016),

[4]  Prensa Latina,Guatemala: Cuban Migrant Issue to be Tackled in regional Meeting, Esacambray (Jan. 20, 2016); Costa Rice Foreign Ministry, Next trip to Cuban migrants will be on February 4 (Jan. 20, 2016); Central American governments agreed to Cubans plan, Granma (Jan. 21, 2016).

[5] U.S.-Cuba Joint Statement on Migration, May 2, 1995, Dispatch Magazine.

[6] Focus on Cuba: Current Issues and Developments at 41 (2008); U.S. Coast Guard, Alien Migrant Interdiction (May 31, 2015)

[7] Clary, Number of Cubans intercepted at sea rises to highest level in two decades, SunSentinel (Nov. 4, 2015); Flechas, U.S. Coast Guard repatriates 169 Cuban migrants, Miami Herald (Jan. 14, 2016)  Rohrer, Post-Thaw, Cuban refugees surge in Florida, Orlando Sentinel (Jan. 19, 2016); Assoc. Press, Coast Guard: Migrants Fleeing Cuba Increasingly Violent, N.Y. Times (Jan. 20, 2016).

[8] Miroff, Amid a historic wave of emigration, some Cubans are returning home, Wash. Post (Jan. 1, 2015).

[9] Gosar, Press Release: Gosar Introduces Bill to End Wet Foot/Dry foot Policy & Stop Cuban Amnesty (Oct. 23, 2015)

[10] Rubio, Rubio Introduces Legislation To End Rampant Abuse of Cuban Refugee Resettlement Benefits (Jan. 12, 2016); Reuters, Republican Rubio Authors Senate Bill to Curb Cuban Immigration Benefits, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2016)  A companion bill (H.R.4247) was introduced in December 2015 in the House by Representative Carlos Curbelo, a fellow Cuban-American Republican from Florida. It has 12 cosponsors and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

[11] U.S. Ending Its Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program? (Jan. 8, 2016).

President Obama Should Exercise His Legal Authority To End U.S. Admission of Cubans Arriving with “Dry Feet”

The U.S. has a law and policy that allows Cubans who arrive on land (with “dry feet”) in the U.S. to be admitted to the U.S. without visas and to be eligible one-year later to apply for permanent residency[1] This blog repeatedly has called for that law and policy to be ended because it is antithetical to the U.S.’ having a normal relationship with Cuba.[2]

A related and important legal issue is whether the president by executive order may end that law and policy. This post will examine how this law and policy work and whether the president, without Congress, may end that policy of admitting those Cubans arriving on land.

 How the Current Law and Policy Work

 The Cuban Adjustment Act of November 2, 1976, as amended, allows any Cuban “native or citizen who has been inspected and admitted or paroled into” the U.S., after one year of “physical presence,” to apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to adjust his or her U.S. legal status to permanent resident alien. Such an adjustment, however, is not automatic or guaranteed by that Act. Instead, the Act provides that the Attorney General has “discretion” to do so if the Cuban applicant “is eligible to receive an immigrant visa and is admissible to the [U.S.] for permanent residence.” If the applicant does not satisfy those requirements, the Attorney General has the discretion to deny the application.[3]

The admissibility requirement involves examination of the applicant’s health; any criminal history in or outside the U.S., especially involving “crimes of moral turpitude,” prostitution, “commercialized vice;” participation in, or support of, terrorist activities; military or paramilitary activities; membership in the Communist Party; and other issues.

Recently many Cubans have been fearing that the U.S. will abolish this policy and have been leaving the island, especially through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and then on through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to reach the U.S. Now many are stranded in Costa Rica and Panama. (See n.2.)

How Can the U.S. Dry Feet Policy Be Abolished?

Significantly, in my opinion, the Cuban Adjustment Act does not require the U.S. to admit into the country any and all Cubans who arrive by land. Indeed, it says nothing whatsoever about that issue. Instead the Act only provides a benefit (the right to file an application to become a permanent resident alien of the U.S.) after he or she has been in the U.S. for a year after having been “inspected and admitted or paroled into” the U.S.

This fact about the law has been recognized by by a respected U.S. academic commentator on U.S.-Cuba issues—William LeGrande. He concludes that the “’dry foot’ policy . . . is a matter of executive discretion [and] could be rescinded by the attorney general without prior notice.” In short, stop admitting such Cubans into the U.S.[4]

On the other hand, in my opinion, the Administration does not have the legal authority, without congressional adoption of a statute to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, to stop considering applications for permanent residency, based upon the facts and law, submitted by Cubans who have been in the U.S. for at least one year.

Meanwhile, some Cuban-Americans in Congress are voicing opposition to that policy because it has been allowing Cubans who are granted legal status in the U.S. under that policy to return repeatedly to Cuba. And one Republican Congressman, Paul Gosar (AZ), on October 23 introduced a bill to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act and the policy. (Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015 (H.R. 3818)); with nine cosponsors it has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.[5] :

Conclusion

This commentator, therefore, concludes that the president has the authority to cease admitting into the U.S. any and all Cubans who arrive at the U.S. border and that he should exercise that authority and do just that. (U.S. immigration law is very complex and I do not have intimate knowledge of its many details. Therefore, I would appreciate anyone with such knowledge to point out any errors in my analysis and conclusion.)

Moreover, the president should do so immediately because of the large number of Cuban migrants stranded in Central America on their journey to the U.S.

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[1] Cubans who are intercepted at sea and thus have “wet feet” are returned to Cuba by the U.S. unless at sea they assert a fear of persecution if returned to Cuba. This is a result of September 1994 and February 1995 agreements or accords between the U.S. and Cuba to seek to stop Cubans from taking dangerous journeys in small boats in the Caribbean to try to reach the U.S.

[2] E.g., Cubans in Central America Provide Cuba with an Opportunity To Reiterate Its Objections to U.S. Immigration Policies (Nov. 20, 2015); Update on Cuban Migrants in Central America (Nov. 27, 2015); Assoc. Press, Costa Rica Asks Belize to Accept Stranded Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Dec. 4, 2015).

[3] Cuban Adjustment Act, Pub. Law 89-732 (Nov. 2, 1966)(as amended); USCIS, Green Card for a Cuban Native or Citizen; U.S.CIS, Green Card Eligibility; USCIS, Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status; USCIS, Instructions for I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status; CLINIC PowerPoint, Cuban Adjustment Act (Mar. 19, 2014); Cuban Adjustment Act, Wikipediia. Some commentators have argued that the statute’s saying the Attorney General has “discretion” to grant permanent residency means that the president, without Congress, may abolish the “dry foot” policy. CDA, The Doorbell in the Wall (Nov. 20, 2015); Muse, U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization? Americas Quarterly.) This “discretion” language, however, in my opinion, has nothing to do with whether the president has the authority to end the policy without congressional approval.

[4] LeoGrande, A New Crisis of Cuban Migration, N.Y. Times (Dec. 5, 2015).

[5] Gosar, Rep. Gosar Introduces a Bill to End Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy and Stop Cuban Amnesty (Oct. 23, 2015).