Cubans have long enjoyed a privilege coveted by any would-be immigrant to the US: All they have to do to get a path to legal residency is step on US soil.
The preferential treatment was established during the Cold War to protect refugees fleeing Cuba’s communist regime. Now that the US and Cuba are finally restoring ties, residents of the Caribbean island fear American officials will start treating them like all other undocumented immigrants and turn them back.
So over the past few months, thousands of Cubans have been trying to reach the US before relations between the two countries are fully normalized.
Instead of risking the trip by boat through the Straits of Florida, many of them have been traveling to South America and making their way north by land. Until recently, the Central American countries along their route let them pass through. But in recent days, the migrants have been bouncing between borders as local officials struggle with how to handle their growing numbers.
On Nov. 13, Costa Rica started detaining migrants at its southeastern border after police broke a human-trafficking ring that was smuggling Cubans through the country. Officials later backed away from the measure, granting some 1,000 Cuban immigrants humanitarian visas to continue their journey after they blocked a highway in protest. Nicaragua, the next country on their way to the US, responded by closing its border on Nov. 15, leaving hundreds of Cubans trapped in Costa Rica.
The Cuban Adjustment Act, the law that allows Cubans to stay in the US even if they arrive without a visa, was enacted in 1966 to manage an exodus from the island after the Cuban Revolution. President Bill Clinton later modified it to only include Cubans who touched dry land, not those intercepted in US waters, a policy known as “wet-foot, dry-foot.” Some half a million Cubans, including the father of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, have become legal residents through the act.
While US officials have said they have no intention of changing that law as they revamp relations with Cuba, there is growing pressure to repeal it. Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman who represents Arizona, last month filed a bill to end the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. “If President Obama has normalized relations with Cuba, why would we treat illegal immigrants from that nation any different than those from other countries?” he said in a statement.
Support for the law is faltering even in Miami, the US’s Cuban-American stronghold. Speaking on a local talk show, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman who fled Cuba when she was eight years old after Fidel Castro took power, said, “it wouldn’t break my heart if it’s done away with.”