The US has a special immigration exception just for Cubans

Cuba’s Yasmani Lopez, center, wearing number 19, during a 2015 Gold Cup game.
Cuba’s Yasmani Lopez, center, wearing number 19, during a 2015 Gold Cup game.
Image: Reuters/Mike DiNovo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The captain of Cuba’s national soccer team “defected” to the United States this week while in Los Angeles for an international soccer tournament.

After the team’s first match in the Concacaf Gold Cup, Yasmani Lopez left the team in order to remain in the US, according to his coach. Cuba’s socialist economy is in dire straits and skilled Cubans, from doctors to athletes, regularly seek asylum in foreign countries.

But the US is currently suffering from an immigration crisis at the border. The number of migrants requesting asylum has outstripped the court system’s capacities and led to families being kept in detention camps with inhumane conditions. Will Lopez wind up in one of these facilities?

It’s unlikely, thanks to his visa and a special law for Cuban migrants that has been on the books since 1966. The Cuban Adjustment Act, or CAA, allows any Cuban who has arrived in the US legally to apply for permanent residency after a year and a day in the country.

Almost 54,000 Cubans obtained permanent residency in the US this way in 2017, according to the most recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.

Lopez is likely to apply for an extension of the visa that allowed him into the country or for administrative asylum, according to Enrique Gonzalez, a Miami-based partner at the law firm Fragomen who has helped Cuban nationals obtain residency in the US before.

“It’s going to keep him here legally while the application winds its way through the convoluted immigration system,” Gonzalez says. “After a year and a day, [he can] withdraw that asylum claim [and] file for a green card.”

Cuba is the only country for which such an exception currently exists, a relic of “anti-communist fervor,” according to Gonzalez, who notes that “defection” isn’t a term in immigration law. Similar rules have been applied to immigrants from Haiti, China, and Nicaragua at different times in the past, but the exception was only available for a limited time.

The CAA is different from an executive branch policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which allowed unapproved immigrants from Cuba to apply for residency if they were caught on land, and not intercepted at sea. That policy was rescinded by president Barack Obama during his push for normal relations with Havana.

The difference between Lopez’s likely experience (Quartz has been unable to contact him for comment) and that of migrants at the US-Mexico border could not be starker.

There, migrants—many Cubans among them—cross the border without visas so they can seek asylum, where they enter into a legal processing system that faces enormous backlogs. More than 140,000 migrants were detained in May 2019 alone.

Unable to manage the refugees, the US government has been cramming them into over-stressed camps and separating children from their families as they await the decisions of immigration judges. The deaths of several children and reports of rampant mistreatment have created a humanitarian crisis.

Gonzalez, who advised Florida senator Marco Rubio during the writing of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, says that the problem “is not so much who qualifies, it’s how the cases get processed. Not enough immigration judges, not enough government attorneys to prosecute these cases.”

Gonzalez is on the board of Unidos, an advocacy group for Latinos, which has called for investment in a modernized refugee processing system, arguing that attempts to block access to migrants seeking asylum is only making the crisis worse.