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Cuban migration to US rises amid historic thaw in relations

Fears grow that US will end ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy granting legal status to Cubans who reach Florida shores

The lines outside the former Swiss-supervised U.S. interests section in Havana were notoriously long for decades, with Cubans applying for a legal path to what they hoped would be a better life.

But since the U.S. diplomatic facility was formally upgraded to an embassy on July 20, the United States and Cuba are perhaps one step closer to modifying an immigration arrangement that affords Cubans special status — whether they arrive stateside legally or not.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act's "wet foot, dry foot" policy dating back to 1994 migration accords, any Cuban who reaches the U.S. is permitted to stay in the country. 

Although U.S. officials say unique migration laws are not going to be scrapped, the Cuban government is calling for reforms to a policy they argue results in brain drain.

Meanwhile, increasing emigration rates during the last year suggest popular perceptions are that the U.S. will soon make it more difficult for new immigrants to be automatically recognized as political refugees.

Perhaps in anticipation of those changes, new data suggest an increase in Cuban migration to the U.S. by land, sea and air. According to U.S. Coast Guard officials, the number of Cubans intercepted at sea has been increasing. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports a 118 percent spike in the number reaching Miami and four points along the border with Mexico. 

How many Cubans are coming to the U.S.?

At present, a guaranteed 20,000 immigrant visas are issued to Cubans each year, with an additional 40,000 non-immigrant visas granted to temporary visitors. Some of the legal migration occurs through the Special Cuban Migration Program, also known as the "Cuban lottery." Other Cubans reach the U.S. by obtaining a third-country passport or through marriage to U.S. citizens.

In 2014, another 25,568 Cubans arrived at border crossings, Florida shores and airports without a visa. CBP reports that the number of illegal arrivals more than doubled between the first quarter of 2014 and the same period this year, from 4,296 to 9,371. The vast majority arrive at the Laredo border crossing, with the second-highest numbers registered in Miami, which includes all ports of entry in southern Florida.

Figures provided by the U.S. Coast Guard show 1,604 interdictions of Cubans at sea thus far in the current fiscal year, which is on pace to result in a 14 percent jump over the previous year.

“The numbers [are] increasing slowly since 2010, and now we're seeing the numbers return to the historical norms of the early 2000s,” said Coast Guard spokesman Chad Taylor, referring to a sea exodus starting to rival the rafter crises of decades past.

Number of Cuban immigrants arriving at U.S. border hubs
Q1 2014 Q2 2014 Q3 2014 Q4 2014 Q1 2015
El Paso, TX 113 99 148 136 126
Laredo, TX 3,020 4,122 4,505 5,880 6,094
Miami, FL 866 1,233 1,710 2,131 2,701
San Diego, CA 278 311 426 408 399
Tucson, AZ 19 58 38 67 51
Total 4,296 5,823 6,827 8,622 9,371
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

How has Cuban migration changed over time?

Cubans flocked to the U.S. in large numbers after the 1959 revolution, and made up 6 percent of all U.S. immigrants during the subsequent two decades. Migration peaked with the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, which saw roughly 120,000 Cubans flee the island to the U.S. over a six-month period in more than 1,500 boats.

While some came for political reasons, many were simply in search of economic opportunities. Though relations had warmed during the Carter administration, restrictions tightened again in the 1980s. By the 2000s, Cubans comprised some 3 percent of U.S. immigrants. More than 32,000 arrived in 2013 alone, according to the Pew Research Center.

Much of the current migration from Cuba starts with a flight to Ecuador, with its welcoming policies, and continues with long land voyages through Panama and Central America en route to the U.S. border, according to migration experts. Panamanian authorities say that from 2013 through early 2015, there were over 8,000 Cubans making their way northward from the Darien Gap.

What is current U.S. immigration policy?

Unlike other migrant groups, Cubans are eligible to remain in U.S. territory irrespective of how they enter. The "wet foot, dry foot" system enshrined during the Clinton administration allows those who have reached U.S. soil to stay, whereas those intercepted at sea are sent back to Cuba. About a half-million Cubans have gained from this policy over five decades, according to Susan Eckstein, an immigration expert at Boston University.

Cuba's government says that continuation of the policy encourages Cubans, especially educated citizens, to leave their native land, allured by better jobs in the United States.

But the U.S. has stated it is not changing its policy. “The Administration’s recent announcement regarding Cuba does not mean a change in our current immigration policy toward Cuba, reflected in the so-called ‘wet foot/dry foot’ policy or the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act,” Carlos Lazo, a CBP spokesman, told Al Jazeera. "We seek to promote safe, legal and orderly migration from Cuba under our migration accords and deter dangerous unlawful migration from Cuba.

Aided by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, nationals of the Caribbean island are eligible for permanent residency one year and one day after reaching the U.S. That act has provided more than $1 billion in financial assistance to Cuban immigrants under the Cuban Refugee Program.

Could the laws change in the near future?

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., an outspoken opponent of the Castro brothers, has suggested he would favor “re-examination” of current policy to prevent new arrivals from taking advantage of generous U.S. government policies and still be able to visit Cuba dozens of times per year.

The Cuban Adjustment Act should be updated to require Cubans to prove persecution, suggests Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center, He says there is no reason why economic immigrants should be entitled to remain “chosen people.” Many critics say Cuban immigrants should be treated like those coming from other Latin American countries. 

In a largely symbolic vote in January, the Miami-Dade County Commission urged Congress to “revisit and amend the Cuban Adjustment Act to ensure the continued protection of immigrants fleeing political persecution,” suggesting current policy helps strengthen the Castro regime. The commission advocated trying to weed out so-called economic refugees. 

During bilateral migration talks with U.S. counterparts, Cuban diplomats have argued Washington should stop offering unconditional safe haven to all Cubans. They say the policy results in perilous and illegal migration.

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