Cuban immigration in a nutshell: dramatic changes


Here is a quick overview of Cuban immigration from the 1960s through this past week, when policy changed without advance notice. This radically changes the immigrant equation for the first time since the 1960s. Much of this history is taken from a Migration Policy Institute report issued today.

There were about one million Cuban-born immigrants in the U.S. in 2013, up from 636,000 in 1980, virtually all of whom emigrated illegally from Cuba and arrived in the U.S. in unauthorized status. The children of these immigrants number about 800,000. About half remain Spanish-dominant in language; 68% live in Florida; and in education, house ownership and income are above other Hispanic immigrants but lower than the general population.

On January 12, the Obama Administration announced “Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities. By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”

This announcement came without warning, to avoid a last minute rush of Cubans seeking to enter the U.S.

Since 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act treats all Cubans as refugees. Cubans who arrive in the United States are eligible for legal permanent residence one year after arrival. Under a1980 law, certain Cubans are also eligible for welfare benefits similar to refugees. No other nationality group has such preferential or immediate access to green cards and welfare benefits. Cuba has refused to take back its nationals who have been ordered deported.

The most dramatic event in this history was the Mariel Boatlift, between April and October, 1980, and named after a port in Cuba. Castro allowed people to emigrate, and 125,000 arrived in 1,700 boats before the U.S. and Cuba came to terms, with Castro no longer permitting emigration. This event added to political pressure to pass an immigration bill, eventually passed in 1986.

A wet foot, dry foot policy is the name given to a consequence of the 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 that essentially says that anyone who fled Cuba and entered the United States would be allowed to pursue residency a year later. The Clinton administration came to an agreement with Cuba that it would stop admitting people intercepted in U.S. waters. A Cuban caught on the waters between the two nations (with “wet feet”) would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore (“dry feet”) gets a chance to remain in the United States, and later would qualify for expedited “legal permanent resident” status and eventually U.S. citizenship.

Re-establishing U.S. – Cuban relations in 2014 spurred a huge increase in Cuban emigration to the U.S. due to fear that preferential treatment of Cuban émigrés will end. Tens of thousands got previously unobtainable exit permits from the Cuban government and traveled by land routes through South and Central America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Total Cuban arrivals in the U.S. went from well under 20,000 before FY 2014 to 48,520 in FT 2016. In FY 2016, there were 5,213 “wet foot” cases and 48,520 “dry foot” arrivals. The number of green cards granted to Cubans has steadily increased in recent years, from 32,219 in FY 2013 to 54,396 in FY 2015.

Cubans who reach U.S. soil are now to be treated the same as all other migrants who arrive without prior authorization. Fuller details on how the new regime will work in actual practice have not yet been detailed.

Cuba has also agreed to consider on a case-by-case basis the return of Cuban nationals who were found removable before January 12, 2017. Media reports suggest that as many as 34,000 Cubans with final orders of removal remain in the United States.

One thought on “Cuban immigration in a nutshell: dramatic changes”

  1. I believe another aspect of the new policy is that the program which permitted Cuban medical professionals to enter the US on a special basis (ahead of other nationalities) is also ended.

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