Last December, President Obama announced a historic agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro to normalize diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, after more than half a century of Cold War hostilities. In July, the two countries reopened their foreign embassies and on August 15, John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to travel to Cuba since 1945.
Now, argues Susan Eckstein, a Boston University scholar of contemporary Cuba and Cuban American immigration, it’s time to rethink another outdated vestige of Cold War politics: US-Cuban immigration policy. For half a century, Eckstein says, Cuban immigrants have been awarded unique immigration privileges with a path to citizenship offered to no other foreigners.
“There are no undocumented Cuban immigrants in the US because, as a result of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans qualify for legal residency after one year on US soil and then citizenship five years later, even when they enter the country illegally. No other foreign-born people enjoy such entitlement,” says Eckstein, who is a College of Arts & Sciences professor of sociology and international relations and holds a joint appointment with the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.
Eckstein has written two books on Cuba: Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro (Princeton, 1994; Routledge, 2003) and The Immigrant Divide: How Cuban Americans Changed the US and Their Homeland (Routledge, 2009). This spring, she was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for research on a book about what she calls “Cuban immigration exceptionalism.”
BU Research sat down with Eckstein to talk about her upcoming book and the tangled history and politics behind US-Cuban immigration policy.
BU Research: Can you tell me a little about your book?
Eckstein: I’m focusing specifically on US-Cuban immigration policy and bringing to it much broader issues based on my knowledge of Cuba and the Cuban American community here. My book will be about the ways in which Cubans have gotten exceptional US immigration privileges that no other immigrant groups have gotten. People know about some but not all of the privileges, and very little about the politics behind the granting of the unique set of privileges.
What is the history?
I’m going back to 1959—to when Fidel Castro took power. It was after the revolution that Cubans started getting exceptional rights. They came after 1959 on tourist visas and were allowed to overstay their tourist visas without being subjected to deportation. Or they were let in without visas and permitted, officially, to stay. People from other countries did not have comparable privileges.
Then in 1966, under President Johnson, the US passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allowed Cubans who touched US soil to be paroled into the US. The word paroled has a specific meaning in immigration policy. It means temporary status. They were allowed to qualify nearly automatically for parole and after a year change that status to legal permanent residency.
You wrote in a recent essay for Reuters that the US initially gave special rights to Cuban immigrants “to sap the Cuban regime of its talented citizens and highlight Cubans’ preference for capitalist democracy over communism.” So it was about Cold War politics?
Well, it begins as Cold War politics, but domestic politics become ever more important over the years. Under President Johnson it even involved “macho politics” between him and Fidel Castro. Here’s an example of “macho politics”: In 1965, Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act that ended national origins quotas. He signs it in front of the Statue of Liberty. He said that we are ending this aspect of our policy to perfect our democracy. From now on, people will be let in on the basis of who they are, not where they’re from. It was a major speech of Johnson’s. He finished the speech, paused, and then said any Cuban who wants to come may come.
You’ve said that this led to the initiation of US-overseen Freedom Flights that brought 270,000 Cubans to the US between 1965 and 1973.
The key criteria for getting on a flight was family reunification.
What was Johnson up to?
In 1965, Castro had said to Cubans: If you want to leave, you can leave through the port of Camarioca. Your family in the US can pick you up there. He said to Cuban Americans: you can come pick up your relatives. Castro had no right to say Cuban Americans could bring foreigners to the US without immigration visas.
So Johnson sought to outdo Castro. He reacted by saying: Cubans, if you want to come, welcome. But the Cubans needed to be screened before coming. Johnson proceeded to reach an agreement with the Castro government for the so-called Freedom Flights.
But Johnson wanted the immigration to be orderly and Cubans to be screened so that persons not eligible for legal permanent residence—for example, criminals and spies—would not be permitted entry.
Those allowed on the flights were mainly relatives of people who had previously come to the US. Nothing against people reuniting with family, but the Johnson Administration permits them to come in a manner that bypassed Congressional control over immigration. Johnson took advantage of a loophole in immigration law generally used for refugee admissions.
Were they refugees?
Most were not refugees. In fact, Castro refused to allow political prisoners onto the flights. There’s a very technical definition of refugees—that you have a credible, demonstrable fear of persecution were you to stay in your homeland. The Freedom Flighters did not have to demonstrate that they suffered persecution and Castro did not permit the Cubans with the best evidence of having suffered persecution—political prisoners—onto the flights. In letting Cubans in, Johnson claimed a Cold War victory. The Cubans were opting for capitalist democracy.
What about the Cubans who came to the US through the Mariel boatlift in 1980?
This is an interesting question. About 125,000 Cubans came to the US illegally in 1980. Again, Castro announced that Cubans who wanted to leave could have their relatives in the US pick them up—this time at the port of Mariel, not the port of Camarioca. Cuban Americans took advantage of the opportunity and sent boats to Cuba. They ignored President Carter’s efforts to stop them.
The exodus from Mariel has background. Both the US and Cuban governments blocked legal immigration at the time. Under the circumstances, Cubans who wanted to leave sought asylum at Latin American embassies in Havana, especially at the Peruvian Embassy. Some 10,000 stormed the Peruvian Embassy, thereby hoping to be able to leave Cuba. Castro wanted to make his problems America’s, by allowing Cubans to leave illegally—those at the Peruvian Embassy and others as well. President Carter tried to negotiate an orderly air or boatlift, like Johnson had in the mid-1960s, but this time Castro refused to cooperate. Some 125,000 Cubans took advantage of the opportunity to leave from Mariel for the US without US authorization.
Castro complicated problems for the US by loading criminals from the country’s prisons and people from mental health hospitals onto the boats. They accounted for about 2% of the Mariels, but enough to taint the image of them all. And they had to be put in our prisons and mental institutions, at our expense, until the Cuban government agreed to their repatriation—which occurred four years later. The US bars criminals from immigration rights. It’s a small percentage, but it was enough to challenge this notion that refugees are supposed to be processed before coming into America—that people who are excludable, such as people with a criminal record, would not be able to get in.
No other head of state has ever gotten away with such defiance of our immigration regulations. Castro was a deft strategist. He managed to play to our weaknesses.
What happened once the people from Mariel arrived in the US?
Once ashore, President Carter allowed them to stay and granted them privileges over other undocumented immigrants—except for the criminals and mentally troubled. He invented a new immigration category for the Mariels, “Entrants: Status Pending.” That way they would not be subject to deportation and they had legal rights to work, and they qualified for special resettlement benefits. Initially, Carter proposed a cost-sharing arrangement in which state and local governments took on some of the expenses and the federal government the remainder.
But Congress passed special legislation to entitle those from Mariel to full, federally funded refugee benefits, to treat them as if they were refugees. From other countries, only true refugees are entitled to fully federally funded education, job training, housing, food assistance, and the like. Some Florida congressmen pressed for the special legislation. They wanted the Cubans to receive the benefits but they did not want Florida taxpayers to have to absorb the costs.
President Carter conceded, and signed the legislation even though he said the Cubans were not refugees. They did not meet the official definition of a refugee—a person suffering persecution who applies for US entry from abroad. Both Congress and the President deliberately imagined the Mariels as refugees to grant them special privileges. Remember, most Mariels came to reunify with relatives in the US who sent boats to pick them up at the Mariel port. They were not fleeing persecution.
Why did Carter sign the legislation?
President Carter signed the legislation because he wanted the Florida vote in the upcoming presidential election. Domestic politics influenced the policy decision that once again privileged Cubans over other foreign-born persons. The Cubans were no more deserving than the estimated four to six million undocumented immigrants from other countries at the time. Making the situation even more amazing, President Carter had signed into law the Refugee Act of 1980 just weeks before the first Mariels came ashore. Congress and the President could not have been more aware that the Mariels did not meet the US definition of refugees.
Although the Mariels got these exceptional privileges, their long-term immigration status remained unspecified. President Carter had only entitled the Mariels to temporary admission. Officially, Congress regulates immigration.
President Reagan decided, however, to reactivate the Cuban Adjustment Act and entitle the “Entrants” rights to legal permanent residence with a path to citizenship. Privileges upon privileges for the Cubans.
It’s so complicated.
It’s also unfair—this manipulation of the law all to the benefit of Cubans.
Then what happened under President Clinton in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Soviet aid to Cuba ended. The economy plunged into a deep, deep recession. Economically desperate, Cubans once again started to head to Florida, this time in rafts, many of which really weren’t seaworthy.
Clinton, when governor of Arkansas, lost his re-election bid in 1980 in part because of Mariels. US immigration officials had sent some of the Mariels who were ineligible for US admission, such as criminals Castro placed on the boats Cuban Americans had sent for their relatives, to the military base at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The Mariels rioted at Fort Chaffee, and Clinton was perceived by voters in the state as an ineffective leader. He lost his reelection bid, the only election he ever lost.
Thus, he was sensitive to the tens of thousands of so-called rafters who were making their way across the Florida Straits in 1994 to escape the economic crisis in Cuba. He quickly intervened to have them diverted to the US naval base in Guantanamo, to keep them from reaching US shores. He did not want “another Mariel,” which contributed not only to his gubernatorial defeat but also to Carter’s defeat when running for reelection. Guantanamo was not really set up for so many people. So there were health problems and protests in Guantanamo, but President Clinton restricted news coverage of what was going on there.
But what to do with the Cubans in Guantanamo? Having them there was no long-term solution, not even really a short-term solution. Meanwhile, Clinton is lobbied by influential Cuban Americans, based in Florida, to let the Cubans at Guantanamo into the US. He is anxious to win his reelection bid, and Florida had the fourth largest number of electoral college votes. Cuban Americans in the state were a very important voting bloc. So, he acquiesces. He agrees to let the rafters in Guantanamo into the US with Cuban Adjustment rights—namely, with rights to permanent residence, work, and citizenship. Thus, once again, Cubans who tried to immigrate illegally received unique immigration rights.
To address this immigration crisis, President Clinton also signed two agreements with the Cuban government, one in 1994, one the following year. In the first one, the US agreed to admit a minimum of 20,000 Cubans a year into the US as legal immigrants. All other countries are entitled to a maximum of 20,000 immigrant visas a year. The second agreement committed the two governments to cooperate in returning to Cuba those Cubans found at sea trying to make their way to the US illegally, with no Cuban to be punished upon their return to the island. From Cuba, they could apply for legal immigration rights. As a result of the second agreement, the number of Cubans who try to make their way across the Florida Straits to the US without authorization has dramatically dropped. Cubans know the US Coast Guard patrols the Straits.
However, where there is a will there is a way. Cubans who want to come to the US but do not qualify for immigration visas or who for some other reason want to get to America quickly, now find other ways to come. For example, they make their way to Mexico and then come across the border. Once on US land, they qualify for Cuban Adjustment Act privileges. They can stay, with legal rights. Mexicans who cross the border at the same place get turned away. Or Cubans make their way to Spain, where some have ancestry rights to Spanish citizenship. From Spain they fly to the US with tourist visas. Once in the US, they claim rights to parole and then residency rights on the basis of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Last year nearly 40,000 Cubans came to the US—roughly 20,000 with immigration visas. The others came without immigration rights but, once in the US, benefited from the unique entitlements of the Cuban Adjustment Act. All these Cubans attain legal rights to work, to stay, to citizenship—while we now have an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country without any rights.
Do you think anything will be done to change US-Cuban immigration policy before the upcoming Presidential election?
I doubt that US-Cuba immigration policy will change before the 2016 election. There is not enough support yet in Congress to vote to sunset the Cuban Adjustment Act, especially as long as the Cuban American members of Congress want to keep intact the legislation that privileges Cubans. Other members of Congress tend to defer to the Cuban American legislators on Cuba policy. If the Cuban American bloc in Congress weakens or if Cuban American legislators decide they no longer want to encourage new immigration from Cuba, then change in the law is likely. In terms of the bilateral agreement Clinton signed, that is likely to remain. Relations with Cuba would sour if the US pulled out of the agreement—just when the US and Cuba are on a path to improved relations.
Cubans for decades have enjoyed a variety of immigration privileges. They are likely to lose some of their privileges as US-Cuban relations normalize, but the changes will not be easy because US-Cuba immigration policy is now entrenched in domestic politics, not merely or mainly foreign relations.