Cuban Adjustment Act: still deadly 40 years later

For decades the U.S. has used the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act to manipulate Cuban emigration for counterrevolutionary purposes. Its provision that Cubans arriving on U.S. soil gain permanent residency after a year has lured thousands to death by drowning as they sought to cross the shark-infested Florida Straits. They end up receiving work permits and Social Security numbers and need not provide affidavits of support.

Said British activist Geoff Bottoms, “If you arrive in a boat from Haiti you will be turned back. If you try to scale the fence on the border with Mexico, you will be thrown back. But if you are a Cuban arriving in a dinghy or on a raft, the red carpet is rolled out.”

That goes for Luis Posada, a self-confessed terrorist. During a May 10 radio broadcast, a Miami talk show host congratulated Posada’s lawyer on the assassin’s release from jail, noting, “They have withdrawn all charges, and granted Luis the right to stay in this country, based on the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

Writer Tadeo Sevilla has identified 61 airplane hijackers over 48 years. Most headed to Florida, killing and maiming en route. Prosecutions in Florida have been inconsistent and deportation rare.

Analysts say the U.S. has long manipulated Cuban emigration to further its own ends. The media and right-wing Cuban Americans portray irregular migrants as political refugees, escapees from “communist tyranny.” The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) “escape valve” lets Washington interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs.

After 1959 the United States waived visa requirements for counterrevolutionaries and facilitated the 1960-62 Peter Pan exodus of 14,000 Cuban children to Florida. By 1965, intensified economic sanctions and the disappearance of air service to the island had all but stalled emigration.

An expanded Cuban community in Florida was ready to support new arrivals. In 1965, Washington created an ad hoc air transport service for emigrants wanting to join families in the U.S. and passed the CAA.

Coping with new realities on both sides, the two countries reached bilateral agreements on legalized migration that would co-exist with the CAA. In 1980, over 125,000 new immigrants arrived during the so-called Mariel exodus. Most were poor, Afro-Cuban and intent upon maintaining ties with Cuba.

Changed demographics and burgeoning anti-immigrant sentiment within the United States impelled the Reagan administration to enter into the Migratory Accords of 1984. Washington agreed to accept up to 20,000 immigrants annually. But under a rigid selection process, only 11,222 Cuban applicants were admitted between 1985 and 1994.

The rejection rate doubled between 1990 and 1994. Meanwhile 82,500 boat people arrived, 60,000 of them between 1991 and 1994, all beneficiaries of the CAA.

The “special period,” Cuba’s greatest period of hardship after the fall of the USSR and its other key trading partners, reached its most acute stage in 1994. Cuban frustration over shortages, hardships and distance from families in the United States mounted as 39,500 new immigrants arrived in Florida during the first nine months of that year.

Cuban authorities lifted restrictions on irregular departures on Aug. 12, 1994. The U.S. Coast Guard picked up 30,000 migrants at sea, delivering them to the U.S. base at Guantanamo or to Panama, in effect short-circuiting the CAA.

The two nations later that year reached new bilateral migratory agreements. Washington promised to accept a minimum of 20,000 Cuban immigrants from a pool selected in Cuba by lottery. The Coast Guard began to return boat people apprehended at sea to Cuba, the numbers rising from 1,619 in 1999 to 2,293 in 2006.

Washington, however, issued less than 1,200 visas annually in 2000-2005. In Florida, the population of legal permanent residents grew by 78,696 between 2000 and 2004, and by 36,261 nationwide in 2005.

Overwhelmingly, Cubans migrate to the U.S. under the CAA. And despite everything they are allowed to stay: for example, immigration officials have not acted against the 29,079 Cuban residents seen as deportable for criminal behavior.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) gave Congress an opportunity to repeal the CAA with a bill he introduced in July 2006, but the law remains in place.

Deaths at sea continue. Human smuggling grows. Florida boat owners take in $10,000-15,000 per head for shipments of 10 to 30 humans from Cuba to Florida. In a new twist they are taking Cubans to Mexico — 9,000 last year — enabling them to cross the Texas border.

atwhit @megalink.net