U.S. Continues Its Absurd Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans  

This blog has frequently criticized the U.S. special immigration benefits for Cubans under the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy.[1]

On August 29 nine Latin American countries joined together to call for the U.S. to end these policies. Their joint letter was signed by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru, all of which recently have been affected by large numbers of Cubans transiting through their countries to reach the U.S.-Mexico border and gain admittance to the U.S. under these policies.[2]

The letter expressed their “deep concern” that U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants is creating a humanitarian crisis and encouraging “a disorderly, irregular and unsafe flow of Cubans. Cuban citizens risk their lives, on a daily basis, seeking to reach the United States. These people, often facing situations of extreme vulnerability, fall victim to mafias dedicated to people trafficking, sexual exploitation and collective assaults. This situation has generated a migratory crisis that is affecting our countries.”

The letter also requested a meeting on these issues with Secretary of State John Kerry.

The letter was announced on August 29 by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, saying, “The fact that nine foreign ministers have signed this letter shows the strength of the sentiment in Latin America that United States policy is creating a migration crisis in our region. It’s time for the U.S. to change its outdated immigration policies toward Cubans, because they are undermining regular and safe migration in our continent.” Long added that the decades-old policy also is a form of “terrible discrimination,” given that scores of migrants from other Latin American countries are forced to “hide and often live decades with the threat of deportation” if they are undocumented, while Cubans are given residence if they step foot on U.S. territory. This injustice must stop for the wellbeing of all.”

The prior week the Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told the McClatchy news organization that the issue has cost his country millions of dollars it doesn’t have and has raised complaints from Costa Ricans about spending resources on stranded foreigners when they were needed by the nation’s own citizens. “The difficulties between the U.S. and Cuba has a direct consequence on other countries in our region that serve as transit. And we are, in a way, paying the consequences of that bilateral relationship.”

Cuban migration indeed is a serious problem for these Latin American countries and for Cuba. More than 46,500 Cubans were admitted to the U.S. without visas during the first 10 months of the 2016 fiscal year compared with more than 43,000 in 2015 and just over 24,000 in 2014.

The continuation of this combined policy has been criticized by the New York Times editorial board. This “anachronistic policy is irrational, strains relations with America’s neighbors and endangers lives. It also has the effect of easing pressure on Cuba’s authoritarian government to make economic and political reforms by offering an incentive to those who are most dissatisfied with the status quo to take a dangerous way out.”[3]

A similar criticism was offered by a prominent writer on Latin American affairs, Andrés Oppenheimer. He said, “It’s time to revise the U.S. government’s special status for Cuban refugees. But it should be done as part of a new commitment by all countries in the region to grant asylum to Cuba’s political refugees, and to press Cuba to abide by international human rights laws. . . . It’s time for all sides to end Cuba policies that are relics of the Cold War. Washington should change its much-abused laws giving special status to all Cuban refugees, and Latin American countries should end their shameful silence on Cuba’s repressive dictatorship, which is at the root of Cuba’s main problems. These are new times that require new policies by all countries.”[4]

Nevertheless, on August 30, a U.S. State Department spokesman acknowledged receipt of the letter from nine Latin American countries and merely said, “the Cuban Adjustment Act remains in place and wet foot/dry foot remains U.S. policy regarding Cuban migration.” He also added these comments: “we are concerned for the safety of all migrants throughout the region, including migrants seeking to journey northward through South and Central America and Mexico. Irregular migration often involves dangerous journeys that illustrate the inherent risks and uncertainties of involvement with organized crime, including human smugglers and traffickers in attempts to reach the United States. We continue to encourage all countries to respect the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and to ensure that they are treated humanely. And we’re going to continue to, obviously, engage governments in the region on this issue going forward.”[5]

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[1] See posts listed in “Cuban Migration to U.S., 2015-2016” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[2] Ordońez, Nine Latin nations band together to plead with U.S. over Cuba, InCubaToday (Aug. 29. 2016); Telesur, Nine Latin American Countries Slam US for creating migrant crisis, Global Research (Aug. 29, 2016); Assoc. Press, LatAm Diplomats Urge US to Change Policy on Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Aug. 29, 2016).

[3] Editorial, Neighbors Question Cuba Migration Policy, N.Y. Times (Aug. 31, 2016).

[4] Oppenheimer, It’s time to change Cubans’ special immigration status, InCubaToday (Aug. 31, 2016).

[5] U.S. State Dep’t, Daily Press Briefing (Aug. 30, 2016).

Resolution of Problem of Cuban Migrants Stranded in Central America

On December 28, 2015, five Central American countries and Mexico apparently resolved the problem created by the presence of 6,000 to 8,000 Cuban migrants in Costa Rica. Many of the circumstances leading up to the presence of these migrants have been discussed in prior posts.[1] This post will review subsequent events that have made the problem more pressing for Costa Rica, the recent agreed-upon solution for this problem and issues presented for its full implementation.

Recent Developments

On December 18, 2015, Costa Rica suspended its participation in the political bodies of the Central American Integration System (SICA) because of the refusal of three members (Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua) to seek a regional solution to the transit of the migrants on their way to the U.S.[2]

On the same date, Costa Rica announced that it would no longer issue any more transit visas to Cubans seeking to enter the country and that it would deport to Cuba any Cubans in the country without such visas. [3]

On Sunday, December 27, Pope Francis led the Angelus Prayer with pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square from the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Immediately after the prayer, Francis said, “[M]y thoughts at this time to the numerous Cuban migrants who find themselves in difficulties in Central America, many of whom are victims of human trafficking. I invite the countries of the region to renew generously all necessary efforts to find a timely solution to this humanitarian tragedy.”[4]

Agreed-Upon Solution[5]

On Monday, December 28, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala met in Guatemala with the International Organization for Migration and agreed to what they called a “pilot project” to resolve the Cuban migrants problem. Here the main points of that “pilot program:”

  • In the first week of January 2016, 250 of the 6,000 to 8,000 migrants in Costa Rica will be flown from San Jose, Costa Rica to San Salvador, El Salvador, where they will obtain the latter’s transit visas.
  • These migrants will then be transferred to buses to be taken from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the latter’s northern border with the U.S. while obtaining on the journey the latter Guatemala and Mexican transit visas.
  • At the U.S. border, the migrants will present their papers to U.S. immigration officials and presumably will be allowed to come into the U.S. under its dry feet/wet feel policy.

In addition, the five Central American countries and Mexico reaffirmed their commitment to combat human trafficking networks, to apply the law “without delay” in order to severely penalize this illegal activity that “unfortunately obliges countries in the region to return to their country of origin all persons entering their territory in an unauthorized manner, ”to prevent irregular migration and to firmly combat the crime of human trafficking, and primarily to protect the integrity of migrants and ensure respect for their fundamental rights,” They also agreed to convene a Regional Conference on Migration to address this issue in its entirety.

El Salvador’s announcement of this agreement stated that its participation in the solution was “in line with the call made by His Holiness Pope Francis, in his message of December 27.” This sentiment was echoed by Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and former Guatemalan foreign minister, who said, “I believe that the pope’s comments were extremely important to accelerate the negotiation process.”

The U.S. and Cuba were not directly involved in the negotiations of this agreement, but according to the Wall Street Journal, both of these countries had pressed the Central American countries to reach a regional agreement on resolving the current situation before the end of this year. They did so after the U.S. reportedly rejected a Costa Rica request for the U.S. to airlift the migrants directly to the U.S. and after Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez stated that “Cuba requests that the solution for the thousands of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica is adequate, taking into account the welfare of these citizens, and that it is as swift as possible.”

Just before this agreement was reached, the New York Times published a letter from Costa Rica’s Ambassador stressing “the growing humanitarian and economic challenge that Costa Rica faces in caring for [the Cuban migrants].”[6]

Concerns About the Agreed-Upon Solution

 The current public information about the agreed-upon solution presents the following questions (and problems):

  • Will the ‘pilot project” be successful?
  • If it is successful, how many separate flights and bus trips will be necessary for all 6,000 to 8,000 migrants legally in Costa Rica? Based upon the 250 migrants involved in the “pilot project,” it will require a total of 32 such ventures for 8,000 migrants.
  • Over what period of time?
  • The “pilot project” and implementation for all of the 6,000 to 8,000 migrants now in Costa Rica with transit visas will be expensive. At only $1,000 per person the total cost would be $6 million to $8 million. Who will pay for it? The countries directly involved clearly are not wealthy countries and presumably cannot afford it. As a result, they probably will ask the U.S. to do. So. Will the U.S. agree to do so?
  • Will the U.S. still have the dry feet/wet feet policy in effect when the “pilot program” and other migrants arrive at the U.S. border and, therefore, be permitted to come into the U.S.?

An overarching concern is whether this agreement will encourage additional Cubans to leave their country in an effort to get to the U.S. next year, especially after Cuban President Raul Castro’s December 29 speech to the country’s National Assembly warning Cubans that next year will be a difficult year for the Cuban economy.[7]

Carlos Raúl Morales, Guatemala’s foreign minister, said, “We are finishing the work of the smugglers, and of course it will incentivize the arrival of more illegals, but in solidarity we could not ignore the drama in Costa Rica.”  Similar thought were offered by Eric Olson, a Latin American analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Central American officials, however, stressed the deal was one-off due to a humanitarian situation and that Costa Rica has ended the transit-visa program that had opened the door to Cuban migrants. “This solution is absolutely an exception for those people who had already arrived legally,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told reporters after the agreement was reached on Monday. “Costa Rica has been very clear that we cannot establish a permanent mechanism” for Cuban immigrants. A Mexican diplomatic official concurred: “The agreement among all of us is that we had to solve this under the principle of shared responsibility and that the problem cannot repeat itself.”

Another result of the surge of Cuban migrants through Central America and of the agreement to resolve the current situation will be the enlistment of all of the Central American countries plus Mexico in Cuba’s effort to persuade the U.S. to terminate as soon as possible its “dry feet/wet feet” immigration policy for Cubans.

This U.S. immigration policy can also be seen as part of the U.S. “visa waiver” program, which currently is under legitimate review for future restrictions to attempt to prevent foreign terrorists from coming to the U.S.[8]

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[1] Cubans in Central America Provide Cuba with Opportunity To Reiterate Its Objections to U.S. Immigration Policies (Nov. 20, 2015); Update on Cuban Migrants in Central America (Nov. 27, 2015); U.S. and Cuba Fail to Resolve Complaints About U.S. Immigration Policies (Dec. 1, 2015); Status of Cuban Migrants in Central America Still Unresolved ((Dec. 11, 2015).

[2] Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Costa Rica suspends participation in political bodies of SICA refusal to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize agreed solution to the transit of Cuban migrants, (Dec. 18 2015).

[3]   Assoc.Press, Costa Rica Suspends Visas for Cubans as Regional Protest, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2015); Assoc. Press, Costa Rica Moves to Deport 56 Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2015).

[4] The Words of the Pope at Angelus, 27/12/2015Pope Francis Angelus appeal for Cuban migrants, Va. News (Dec. 27, 2015).

[5] Assoc. Press, Costa Rica: Some Stranded Cubans to be Allowed to Continue North, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2015); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Countries in the region agree to give exceptional, safe passage and ordered Cuban migrants (Dec. 28, 2015); Guatemala Foreign Ministry, Press the Republic of Guatemala regarding the meeting held to address the immigration status of Cubans in Costa Rica (Dec. 28, 2015); El Salvador Foreign Ministry, El Salvador reiterates its readiness to cooperate with immigration crisis solution (Dec. 28, 2015); Central American agreement to transfer first group of Cuban migrants, Granma (Dec. 29, 2015); Iliff & Montes, Accord Over Cubans Stranded in Costa Rica Sparks Fear of Illegal Migration Wave, W.S.J. (Dec. 29, 2015).

[6] Macaya, Letter to the New York Times (Dec. 28, 2015).

[7] Iliff & Montes, Accord Over Cubans Stranded in Costa Rica Sparks Fear of Illegal Migration Wave, W.S.J. (Dec. 29, 2015); Assoc. Press, Raul Castro Prepares Cuba for Tough Year Despite US Opening, N.Y. Times (Dec. 29, 2015); Raul Castro, We never accept conditionalities for lacerating the sovereignty and dignity of the homeland, Granma (Dec. 30, 2015).

[8] E.g., Hulse, Some revealing Moments as Congress Closes the Door on 2015, N.Y. Times (Dec. 21, 2015)

Update on Cuban Migrants in Central America

A prior post discussed the conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over Cubans trying to traverse Central American countries on their way to the United States. Since then, the foreign ministers of the eight countries of the Central American Integration System (SICA) and of other interested countries (Cuba, Ecuador and Colombia) held an inconclusive meeting to discuss that situation and thereafter Ecuador announced a change in its policies for Cuban migrants. Here is a summary of those developments.

Situation of Cubans in Central America

An estimated 3,000 Cubans are now stuck in Costa Rica over Nicaragua’s refusing to allow their entry into that country for their journey to the U.S. Many of these Cubans have smart phones and social media that have assisted them in their trek from Ecuador to Central America and, they hope, on to the U.S.[1]

SICA Foreign Ministers Meeting

The situation of the Cuban migrants was the focus of the just mentioned SICA meeting on Tuesday (November 24) . Note that the U.S. was not present or invited.[2]

The situation was prompted by Nicaragua’s refusing to admit Cuban migrants from Costa Rica. Nicaragua said Costa Rica had created and manipulated this crisis by seeking to ignore the real cause: the U.S. immigration policies that need to be changed. “Our governments do not have the resources to deal with this new threat to our national security,” suggesting that Nicaragua was faced with the wave of Cubans that could facilitate terrorism or migrants from other countries. Nicaragua also criticized the Cold-War-era U.S. policies that allow the Cubans special status as migrants.

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Cubans in Costa Rica came legally to different nations of Latin America, with all the requirements established by the migratory regulations of their country. “In an attempt to reach U.S. territory, [however,] they have become victims of traffickers and criminal gangs, which unscrupulously profit from the control of the passage of these people through South America, Central America and Mexico.” Moreover, Cuba stated that the migrants also were victims of the politicization of the migration issue by the U.S. government, through the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy.”

Cuba also said it has remained in contact with the governments of the countries involved. Indeed, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, visited officials of its allies, Ecuador and Nicaragua, on November 19 and 20 respectfully to discuss the situation.

Ecuador supported Nicaragua’s position by saying that under international law creation of humanitarian corridors only applies in situations of war or armed conflict which was not the case here.

The Salvadoran Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugo Martinez, afterwards said it was necessary to reach a comprehensive solution that addressed the current immigration crisis. He also said that El Salvador will ask the International Organization for Migration to support Costa Rica in shelter conditions for the Cuban migrants. However, he said, allowing the passage of the migrants was subject to the “principle of self-determination” of each of the SICA countries and that the migration was not encouraged by the country of origin (Cuba) or by the Central American countries, but by the U.S. with its special immigration policies for Cubans.

After the meeting Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister, Manuel Gonzalez, said that Nicaragua had refused again to cooperate in finding and adopting a solution for the migrants.

The solution proposed by Costa Rica was an arrangement to enable the safe, orderly and documented transit of the Cuban migrants so that they would avoid falling prey to international trafficking networks. According to Gonzalez, Nicaragua objected to this proposal and did not present any viable alternative approach.

Ecuador’s Requiring Visas for Cubans

On November 26 Ecuador announced that effective December 1 it will require Cubans to have visas to enter the country. Ecuador’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Xavier Lasso, said this change was to honor commitments it made at the SICA meeting “to stop human rights violations and even loss of lives” and to halt threats to Cuba’s population. Lasso also urged the U.S. to rescind its “dry feet” immigration policy so that Cubans would no longer attempt this journey.[3]

The next day hundreds of Cubans gathered at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Havana to protest the new visa policy. They were angry because they say they had bought airplane tickets to Ecuador before visas were required. An Embassy spokesman said the Cubans would have to get a new visa and speak to the airlines about refunds.[4]

Conclusion

I agree that special immigration benefits for Cubans arriving on land in the U.S. and the risk that these benefits will be eliminated are 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.[5] In a future post I will attempt at least a preliminary legal analysis of the claim that the Obama Administration on its own by executive order or changes in regulations could do this.

I also agree that the U.S. should abolish the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program as discussed in prior posts.[6] 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. (I would appreciate comments on this issue by those with more knowledge of the issues.)

The continuation of these U.S. immigration laws and policies will clearly be at the top of the Cuban agenda for the biannual round of bilateral discussion of migration issues in Washington, D.C. on November 30. Now Cuba will emphasize the recent Cuban migrant situation in Central America as an additional reason for prompt U.S. action.[7]

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. I also believe, for similar reasons, that Ecuador’s recent requirement of visas for Cubans was at the request of Cuba.

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 [1] Assoc. Press, Social Media Helps Drive Historic Cuban Exodus to US, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2015).

[2] Sica meeting will address situation of Cuban migrants in Central America, Granma (Nov. 20, 2015); Cuban Foreign Minister held working visit to Ecuador and Nicaragua, Granma (Nov. 22, 2015); Begins Tuesday SICA meeting on migration in Central America, Granma (Nov. 23, 2015); Moran, Cuban migration could generate humanitarian crisis, ContraPunto (Nov. 23, 2015); Assoc. Press, Central American Officials Meet on Cuban Migrant Problem, N.Y> Times (Nov. 24, 2015); Foreign Ministers Discuss in El Salvador on Cuban Migrants Situation, Prensa Latina (Nov. 24, 2015); SICA meeting solution Cuban migrants issue in Costa Rica, CubaDebate (Nov. 24, 2015); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Nicaragua PREVENTS regional and humanitarian solution for protection of Cuban Migrants (Nov. 24, 2015); Moran, Nicaragua blocks outlet for Cuban immigrants, ContraPunto (Nov. 24, 2015); SICA Meeting in El Salvador: Regional gathering discusses situation of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica, Granma (Nov. 25, 2015); Gomez, Central America, a broker of broken dreams, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] Ecuador Foreign Ministry, Ecuador requests tourist visas to Cubans starting December 1 (Nov. 26, 2015); From December 1 Ecuador requires visas for Cubans, El Commercio (Nov. 26, 2015); Ecuador asked the Cuban visa from December 1 (+ Note of the Foreign Ministry), CubaDebate (Nov. 26, 2015); Ecuador announces visa requirement for Cubans, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015); Assoc. Press, Ecuador to Require Cubans to Get Entry Visas, N.Y. times (Nov. 26, 2015); Cubans need visas to enter Ecuador again, LaHora (Nov. 27, 2015); Soraya, Ecuador puts a stop to the arrival of Cubans, El Pais (Nov. 27, 2015).

[4] Reuters, Cubans Protest New Ecuador Visa Regulation, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2015); Assoc. Press, Hundreds Gather in Havana in Frustration at Ecuador Visa Rule, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2015).

[5] E.g., Results of U.S.-Cuba Discussions After Ceremonial Opening of U.S. Embassy in Havana (Aug. 18, 2015).

[6] E.g., New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel ( Nov. 23, 2014)

[7] Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cuba and the United States will hold a new round of migration talks, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015); U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Migration Talks, Counter-Narcotics Dialogue (Nov. 25, 2015)