Cuban Adjustment Act remains off the table

The Obama administration recently proposed resuming semi-annual talks on Cuban migration to the United States. The State Department referred to “commitment to safe, legal and orderly migration” and to President Obama’s desire “to support the Cuban people in fulfilling their desire to live in freedom.”

Three Cuban-American members of Congress condemned the initiative as “another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship.” The announcement left much unsaid, particularly concerning the Cuban Adjustment Law, passed in 1966. That legislation entitles all Cuban arrivals on U.S. soil to economic assistance and, in a year, to permanent residence. No immigrants from any other place gain such advantage. Cubans induced to emigrate are portrayed as victims of repression.

There are costs. Some 15 percent of those persuaded to cross the Florida Straights in small boats drown. In addition, massive migration encouraged by the law had national security ramifications in 1994. That year, 40,000 Cubans headed for Florida in rafts and small boats rather than endure shortages following the Soviet collapse.

Washington worried enough then to talk with Cuban officials. U.S. negotiators proceeded to modify workings of the Cuban Adjustment Act: migrants picked up at sea would be returned to Cuba and 20,000 Cubans would receive visas annually. Cuba agreed to rein in seaborne departures. The two sides agreed to hold migration talks semi-annually. These are the negotiations, dropped by the Bush administration in 2004, the Obama State Department would renew now.

The U.S. government did not issue the required number of visas until 2004.

In 2006, Washington prioritized for legal immigration Cubans wanting to rejoin families in the United States. Immigration authorities have recently extended the Adjustment Law to children of Cubans living in third countries and holding duel citizenship.

Last year 3,400 of 41,000 green card recipients entered the United States as tourists using one passport and legitimized a prolonged stay using another, a Cuban document.

Recently 90 percent of irregular Cuban migrants are those arriving in Texas or various U.S. airports from Central America and Mexico. Their numbers fell slightly following Cuban-Mexican talks last November and tightened enforcement of Mexican regulations. Human smugglers continue to transport Cubans to Florida  437 last year  or to Mexico, charging $10-$15,000 per head.

Fewer Cubans are entering the U.S. under Adjustment Act auspices. The total for the year ending Sept. 30, 2008, was 14,061; 11,000 entered between October 2007 and April 30, 2008. By contrast, from October through March this year, 4,554 irregular immigrants arrived. Immigration authorities cite improved coordination among agencies and prosecution of smugglers. Last year 415 Cubans were seized at sea and repatriated.

For Manuel Yepe (cubaperiodistas.cu), it’s a matter of economics. Cuban Americans have provided discouraging reports on job and housing prospects to relatives in Cuba. Payments to smugglers are difficult to meet. Analysts see the tie between reduced migration and bad U.S. economic news as corroborating the idea that Cuban migration is economic in motivation, rather than political.

Change is in the air. Bush regulations on Cuban American travel to the island and financial support for families there have been dropped. Congress is considering proposals to open up Cuban travel for U.S. citizens. Agri-business is pressuring the Obama administration to facilitate food exports.

Now renewed talks on migration are proposed. They will likely cover failures to issue departure and entry visas and denial by Cuba of access to deep water harbors for U.S. vessels returning migrants. Cuban laxity in preventing seaborne departures could be discussed, also crimes and illnesses preventing permanent U.S. residence.

There is no indication in the U.S. media or by government spokespersons that the Cuban Adjustment Act will be discussed. And yet for Cuba, its demise is crucial. After all, according to French commentator Jacques Francois Bonaldi, it’s “an arm of the total war Washington unleashed against the Cuban revolution fifty years ago.”

The Spanish Gara web site took note of a Cuban grandmother’s distress on her daughter’s departure to the United States: “If even Hillary Clinton can speak of errors,” Ainara Lertxundi asks, “why do [they] maintain it and keep on encouraging emigration through the Cuban Adjustment Law, whether by airplane or by raft?”