Friday, January 13, 2017

Chosen people no more

Ok fine, let’s get back to it.

The end of the wet foot-dry foot policy ends Cubans’ status as the chosen people of U.S. immigration policy.

Until yesterday, they were admitted when they show up at the border with no visa, put on a path to legal permanent residency, and given a package of free government benefits (Medicaid, food stamps, education assistance) that no other nationality gets.

If you like the idea of a fair and even-handed immigration policy – something that I as a fan of legal immigration think we should maintain – this change is long overdue. Cubans, few of whom come here as refugees, had no reason to receive that package of federal benefits that is intended for refugees. And Cubans who intend to immigrate will now have to do so through the processes and timetables that apply to everyone else.

Here’s the joint announcement of the two governments, the Obama statement, a Cuban foreign ministry press conference, and a Homeland Security fact sheet.

This is not the end of Cuban immigration, far from it. The U.S. commitment under the 1994/1995 immigration accords to issue 20,000 immigrant visas each year remains in effect, and we could do more. Cubans have the rare opportunity to apply for refugee status in the U.S. consulate in Havana (which amounts to a few hundred per year), they can apply elsewhere if they are outside Cuba, and they can seek asylum at the U.S. border.

Yesterday’s announcement may not even end all illegal immigration by Cubans. Yes, those who show up at the border will be returned. But there are other groups: those who arrive with visas and overstay, then seek legal permanent residency; or those Cubans who acquire Spanish citizenship, enter on a Spanish passport, then seek legal permanent residency. The Cuban Adjustment Act remains on the books and still allows the executive to “adjust” the status of Cubans who have been on U.S. soil for one year by giving them permanent residency. Yesterday’s announcement was silent on this question.

The Administration’s announcement drew a hoary condemnation from Senator Menendez (it will “tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people”).

But it’s surprising that those who support the embargo as an instrument of pressure on the Cuban people and the Cuban government do not support this step. If your goal is to apply pressure to force political change, it makes no sense to maintain an open-door immigration policy that invites dissatisfied Cubans to get up and leave.

The new policy is good for U.S. border security, because it will stem a flow of tens of thousands of illegal migrants per year and likely free up enforcement resources. It is good for countries from Ecuador to Mexico that have had to care for these migrants. And inside Cuba, it certainly puts a greater onus on the government to press ahead with economic reforms – those on the books now, and perhaps new ones – that can create jobs for those who have been leaving Cuba in search of basic economic opportunities.

As for the incoming Trump Administration, its views on this are anyone’s guess. But candidate Trump did address the issue in an interview last February. When asked if the special treatment for Cuban migrants is justified, he responded: “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing? … You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”

Sounds like Obama did him a favor.

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