End the Cuban Privileged Pathway to Citizenship (OPINION)

(From 1996, Cubans about to fly from Guantánamo to asylum in the U.S./Photo by Adrian Olguin, for the United States Marine Corps)

UPDATE: On Thursday January 12, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration will end the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy.

Immigration activists have to consider new strategies in the face of Donald Trump’s victory. Rather than focusing on the nearly impossible mission of achieving citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the immigrant rights movement should focus their efforts on repealing the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, otherwise known as the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy.

The Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy provides Cubans a privileged path to citizenship, as long as they arrive on United States soil without being caught by American authorities. If they are caught before reaching American shores, they are deported back to the island. Considering the brutal dictatorship that has existed on the island for the past half-century, most folks would be inclined to support the political asylum of those fleeing the island. However, there are two major problems with the continued existence of the Cuban Adjustment Act: first, the Cuban-American political establishment, which is mainly Republican, has consistent voted against comprehensive immigration reform (COR), and second, the Cuban Adjustment Act has been abused to the point where American taxpayer dollars are reaching the island itself, supporting the lives of the very refugees that are supposed to be fleeing the island.

One of the major reasons for the failure of CIR in the past decade has been the opposition from the Cuban-American Republican political establishment. Although House Representatives such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have consistently voiced support for CIR, I am focusing my attention on Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. For all the talk that these individuals represent “the Latino community,” the reality is that they only represent Cuban-American Republicans. In the context of the Cuban Adjustment Act, it is abhorrent that Rubio and Cruz derail “amnesty” for the undocumented immigrants while their own people benefit from a privileged path to citizenship by only having to touch American soil upon arrival.

Let’s be honest, Cubans leaving the island today for the U.S. are leaving for the very same reasons people elsewhere leave their home countries: to seek better economic opportunities. Even if we want to say that Cubans are leaving the island due to political repression, how is the Cuban experience different from the Honduran experience, where the gang violence is causing massive social instability, or the Haitian experience, where the island’s failed governments have denied the Haitian people a dignified life?

I am by no means defending communism or fidelismo: in the end, he was a brutal, anti-democratic dictator, but to say that Cubans are currently living under greater socioeconomic stress than most Central Americans or the Haitians is to ignore the realities on the ground in those countries as well.

Senators Rubio and Cruz: you cannot deny the request of millions of displaced immigrants to be part of American society when this country has opened their arms to yours. Your opposition to CIR while supporting Wet Foot, Dry Foot is disingenuous at best, and insulting to Latino immigrants at worst.

The second reason to seek the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act is to solve the rampant and unchecked corruption associated with the act. A special report by the Sun-Sentinel in October 2015 discovered that “Cuban immigrants are cashing in on U.S. welfare and returning to the island, making a mockery of the decades-old premise that they are refugees fleeing persecution at home,” and that “some stay for months at a time, [while] the U.S. government keeps paying.” The Cuban Adjustment Act is estimated to have allocated $680 million dollars to support recent Cuban arrivals. However, the Sun-Sentinel discovered that no agency keeps track of how the funds are spent by recent arrivals, nor the amount of money that is being spent on food stamps, disability insurance, and other services that is benefiting individuals living in Cuba. Here is just one grotesque example on the flagrant abuse of Cuban Adjustment Act funds:

“One woman told Miami immigration attorney Grisel Ybarra that her grandmother and two great aunts came to Florida, got approved for benefits, opened bank accounts and returned to Cuba. Month after month, the woman cashed their government checks — about $2,400 each time — sending half to the women in Cuba and keeping the rest.

When a welfare agency questioned the elderly ladies’ whereabouts this summer, the woman turned to Ybarra, a Cuban American. She told Ybarra her grandmother refused to come back, saying: “With the money you sent me, I bought a home and am really happy in Cuba.”

Cubans on the island, Ybarra said, have a name for U.S. aid.

They call it “la ayuda.” The help.”

Considering the rampant verbal abuse Latino immigrants were subjected by Trump and his white nationalist supporters throughout the presidential campaign, it is hypocritical and vulgar that Rubio, Cruz and the rest of the Cuban-American Republican establishment constantly deny the aspirations of inclusion by millions of immigrants because it would be “rewarding amnesty to lawbreakers,” while their own people abuse and steal from the American taxpayer.

Immigration activists should therefore pursue a strategy of repealing the Cuban Adjustment Act. It’s a viable option: since CIR is practically dead given Republican control of the government, repeal of the Act would at least signal to the Cuban-American Republican establishment that their continued opposition to CIR is immoral and hypocritical. Support for the Act is immoral because you can’t continue to advocate for the privileged pathway of your own people without using that same power to advocate for the plight of the rest of the immigrant community. Support for the Act is hypocritical because members of your own political party are falsely accusing undocumented immigrants of committing mass fraud, when it is your community abusing the help they are receiving from the American government. Fleeing from a communist government does not grant you the right to use your political power in the U.S. to advocate for your own flag at the cost of everyone else.

If you think I am being harsh, I am from Miami, and the resentment the other communities in our city have towards the abuse and privilege of the Cuban-American community has always been there, and will only increase as Trump begins his campaign of deportations and discrimination. Immigration activists should focus their efforts on organizing the immigrant communities in Miami to demonstrate to the Cuban-American Republican establishment our strength in numbers. For those Cuban-Americans who are against such abuses by your fellow Cuban compatriots, now is the time to speak up against such abuses and join the immigrant rights movement. For the rest of you who voted for Trump and Rubio: enough of your entitlement and hypocrisy.

Wet Foot, Dry Foot must end.

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Danny Navarro was an Obama for America field organizer during the 2012 campaign. He tweets from @NavarroDanny9.

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