Part III: Congress reacts
By Sally Kestin, Megan O'Matz and William E. Gibson
A law unto themselves
Cubans are the only nationality with their own immigration law. The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed nearly 50 years ago to provide an escape for those fleeing communism, presumes Cubans to be political refugees and does not require them to prove persecution or seek asylum.
Unlike other immigrant groups, Cubans are allowed into the country without visas. They’re eligible for financial assistance and fast-tracked for legal residency and citizenship, regardless of how they arrive or why they left Cuba.
The open-door policy provides no mechanism for the U.S. to check the backgrounds of many Cubans arriving at the border. Even with Cubans immigrating through legal channels, such as a family reunification program for immediate relatives, background information is limited.
“The reality is with Cuba it is very, very difficult to determine if they have a criminal history,” said Antonio Revilla, a Miami attorney and former immigration prosecutor. “As far as our knowing what’s transpired in Cuba, what kind of people they are in Cuba, we have limited knowledge.”
The law allows Cuban immigrants to become permanent residents after just a year, travel back to Cuba and legally re-enter the U.S.
Many are now going back and forth like Cuba is their winter home, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Cuba Democracy Advocates, which supports stronger measures against the Cuban government.
“There is a new category of Cubans that are coming for other reasons that are not political. That’s fine, and we welcome them,” he said, but they “should play by the same rules as everybody else in the world.”
Immigrants from other countries who don’t have visas must prove political persecution to stay in the United States. Those who succeed jeopardize that status if they return to their home countries before they become U.S. citizens.
Cuban immigrants who return to the island as soon as they obtain a green card “undermine the argument that they have a legitimate fear of persecution,” Curbelo said.
“I don’t think any American citizen can support the systematic abuse of a generous immigration law,” the freshman Congressman said. “It’s certainly very demoralizing to people from other countries who would like to come to our country and have a more prosperous future and are not able to do so.”
As Congress takes up broader immigration reform, Curbelo said, “I think we certainly have to take a hard look at the Cuban Adjustment Act.
“I’m not for eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act, but we certainly need to tighten it,” he said.
Ros-Lehtinen said she doesn’t believe the act facilitates crime in the U.S. but said “it’s not supposed to be as a ticket in and out ... to say that you’re persecuted, you get to speed up your paperwork, but then you’re able to go back and forth.”
The law “should be used only for those who are fleeing persecution,” she said. “I’m not in favor of getting rid of it because tomorrow there will be someone who will be worthy of that designation, so what we need to do is cut down on its abuse.”
Influential voting bloc
The Cuban delegation in Congress, an influential voting bloc, has stopped past attempts to repeal the law, despite arguments that it is unfair to other immigrants and no longer necessary.
The act “has been an anachronism” for decades, pitting one deserving group of immigrants against others, said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration. “It’s always caused controversy over why do you treat Haitians one way and Cubans another way?”
Mike Kopetski, a former Congressman from Oregon, felt a backlash when he tried to overturn the law in 1994, calling it indefensible and overly generous.
“A lot of the representatives from South Florida in particular were very upset with me,” said Kopetski, now an international trade consultant. “I was frustrated by the fact it was Florida and led by Cuban Americans in Florida who were dictating our Cuba policy in this area when this is a national policy.”
In recent years, some Cuban Americans in Congress have become more open to modifying the law over concern about the increased back-and-forth by new immigrants and criminals.
A 2012 proposal would have revoked the legal residency of immigrants admitted under the law who returned to Cuba before becoming a U.S. citizen. The bill’s sponsor, former Rep. David Rivera, a Cuban American from Miami, noted that fugitives who had stolen billions from Medicare and Medicaid “live in Cuba protected by the Cuban government.”
The proposal stalled. During one committee hearing, opponents said it divided Cuban families and unfairly punished those who wanted to visit sick or dying relatives on the island.
Revilla said he does not believe the law is responsible for crimes committed by Cuban immigrants.
“I don’t think Cubans are coming here saying, ‘I’m going to come here, become a resident, then commit a crime,’” he said. “It’s human nature, just like Americans commit crime.”
Time for reform
Momentum for reform has been building with increased openness that began five years ago.
The Obama administration in 2009 reversed rules limiting trips and money Cuban Americans could take to the island. And in August 2013, the State Department extended travel visas for Cubans to visit the U.S. from six months to five years and allowed multiple trips.
Also in 2013, the Cuban government made it easier for its citizens to travel abroad, allowing them to stay in the U.S. for up to two years without losing their homes and benefits in Cuba.
Both countries expect increased travel once diplomatic relations are restored. Diaz-Balart said the U.S. must demand the return of fugitives hiding out in Cuba, which in published reports has expressed an unwillingness to do.
“It is unconscionable that the Obama administration would work out a deal with the anti-American, brutal Castro regime to ease sanctions, establish diplomatic relations, and return three convicted spies while doing nothing to bring these criminals back to the United States,” he said.
Rep. Deutch said all U.S. policy toward Cuba should be re-examined.
“Now [immigrants] have the ability to go back and forth and they have the ability to take unlimited money,” he said. “It’s certainly important I think for us to take a look at the connection and the interaction between the existing law, the changes in policy and this increase in crime, and determine whether there might need to be some changes.”
Read the entire series here: http://interactive.sun-sentinel.com/plundering-america/
ANTONIO G. REVILLA III, Former U.S. Immigration Prosecutor and Immigration Lawyer
Miami immigration lawyer, Antonio G. Revilla III, is a Former U.S. Immigration Prosecutor and immigration attorney with over 23 years of legal experience. Mr. Revilla has helped countless immigrants remain in the United States by representing clients with honesty, integrity, and a wealth of experience in immigration law. Mr. Revilla is a passionate advocate for immigration reform and has dedicated his career to keeping families together and preventing loved ones from being deported from the United States.
If you wish to schedule a free in-office consultation with Antonio Revilla, contact Revilla Law Firm, P.A., today at (305) 858-2323 or toll free (877) 854-2323.