A New Cuban Exodus
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD DEC. 21, 2015
Tens of thousands of Cubans have taken to the seas and embarked on
perilous journeys by land this year, headed to the United States. The
new exodus, the largest wave of Cuban migrants since the 1990s, is
driven by hopelessness at home and fear that the unique treatment Cuban
immigrants receive from Washington could end, now that diplomatic
relations have been restored.
With one year left in office, the Obama administration appears
disinclined to scrap the policy, which gives virtually every Cuban who
reaches American soil the automatic right to settle in the United States
and apply for citizenship in a few years. Officials have long worried
that winding down the program could trigger a stampede of Cuban
migrants, an outcome that could mar President Obama's legacy on Cuba.
Still, it is time to do away with the policy, a Cold War relic that is
hindering the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana.
Congress should repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 law that created
an expedited mechanism to admit Cubans at a time when the United States
was seeking to undermine a Soviet ally. Under a longstanding policy,
called "Wet Foot, Dry Foot," Cubans who reach the United States get to
stay, and those interdicted at sea are returned home.
This system has been a boon for human smugglers in Latin America and
created burdens for countries from Ecuador to Mexico through which they
move. It has also been used by Cuba as a pretext to impose strict
controls on its people and prevented the American government from
conducting the type of thorough security vetting that all other
If lawmakers don't act, the Obama administration has several options.
The Cuban Adjustment Act gives the executive branch discretion to admit
Cubans who arrive on America's shores, but it does not require that the
government do so. The Obama administration should negotiate a new
agreement with the Cuban government that makes orderly immigration the
norm. Cubans who arrive in the United States without authorization
should be sent back unless they show a credible fear of persecution. The
United States should also end a separate program that encourages Cuban
medical professionals on government assignments abroad to defect to the
In exchange, the Cuban government should be required to accept the
return of Cubans who are subject to American deportation orders because
they have been convicted of crimes; roughly 34,500 Cubans in this
category remain in the United States because Havana has refused to issue
them travel documents. Cuban officials should also agree to rescind the
travel restrictions imposed on medical workers this month, a measure
that contravenes international human rights law.
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The policy toward Cuba has been terrible for a long time. The embargo
against Cuba has done nothing but cause innocent Cubans to suffer. ...
The American policy is unpopular even among prominent dissidents who
argue that it has dimmed the prospect of political change. "We respect
the right of people to immigrate," said José Daniel Ferrer, the leader
of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the island's largest dissident group.
"But as Cubans concerned about the future of our nation, we see with
great anguish that Cuba is emptying out."
Even with a change in policy, the American government could still
continue to admit a high number of Cuban immigrants who apply for visas
from Havana, giving priority to those who have legitimate persecution
claims and those who have family members in the United States.
The plight of thousands of Cubans who have been stuck in Costa Rica for
several weeks has brought into sharp focus the absurdity of America's
policy. Those Cubans, whose journey began in Ecuador, were stranded
after Costa Rica disbanded a smuggling ring, and officials in Nicaragua,
Guatemala and Belize decided they would not allow them to continue north.
American officials are at a loss to explain the special treatment for
Cubans, which stands in stark contrast to the harsh way the United
States typically treats Central Americans, including minors, many of
whom are fleeing for their lives."