The 2016 presidential race has been fraught with such drama and contention that watching the never ending debates has become a regular source of entertainment (and pain) at my house. Please don’t misunderstand, we are all too cognizant of the importance of this election, but it seems as though the media began their ultra-superficial non-stop coverage about a year early this time. During this week’s Republican debate hosted by CNN in Houston, Texas, there was extensive discussion amongst the candidates about immigration. Two of the candidates even highlighted their Cuban heritage, but it’s what they left out that caught my attention.
Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and failed attempts by the U.S. to overthrow Fidel Castro, many Cubans were arriving to the U.S. The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) was enacted in 1966 in response to this mass migration. Since then, Cubans continued to flee to the U.S. both as refugees fearing persecution and as economic migrants. In 1994 I was a teenager growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My grandparents lived in a beachfront condo, one of the tall cement buildings lining the ocean side of A1A from Commercial Boulevard, south to Oakland Park. My grandmother and I would sometimes walk the sandy strip of beach early in the morning looking for shells and other curiosities. One day, we came across a pile of flattened inner tubes, wood, and plastic sheeting all tied together. My grandmother explained that this debris was a boat which likely carried Cubans to the U.S. She explained to me that she had seen many of these recently and that mothers, babies, and all types of people were so desperate to leave Cuba they risked their lives in shark filled seas to reach the shore where I was fortunate enough to have been born. We started seeing more and more of the remnants of these “boats” along the shore. As it turns out, over thirty-five thousand Cubans, dubbed “balseros,” arrived to Florida that year. It was this mass migration which triggered Congress to amend the CAA in 1995 to include what is now referred to as the “wet foot/dry foot policy.” The implementation of this policy is that Cubans who are intercepted at sea (wet foot) may be returned to Cuba or a third country, while Cubans who make it to U.S. land (dry foot) have the ability to remain in the U.S. and eventually apply for U.S. residence. The intent behind the policy was to deter another mass exodus from Cuba such as the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980 when approximately 125,000 Cubans fled to the U.S. by sea.
Under the CAA, Cubans are treated differently than immigrants of any other nationality. The CAA is an extraordinarily generous law which permits a fast-track to lawful status for Cubans, regardless of whether they enter the U.S. legally or unlawfully. In 2015 alone, nearly 30,000 Cubans traveled to the U.S. from Mexico without permission to enter. Unlike the “Dreamers,” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who candidates Trump, Cruz, and Rubio would see unprotected and deported, Cubans who reach the border need only declare their nationality and they are admitted or paroled under the “dry foot” policy. To be eligible to apply for permanent residence (a “green card”), a Cuban need only be inspected and admitted or paroled into the U.S. and reside here for one year.
U.S. immigration policy for Cubans is indeed very special. But even though two of the Presidential candidates are of Cuban descent, they infrequently discuss the CAA. During the most recent debate both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz described how they were stellar examples of Cuban-American success stories as the children of immigrants. While they publicly state pride in their own immigrant heritage they seem unable to grasp the need of other groups of foreign nationals to seek better opportunity in the U.S. They lack compassion for those who were brought to this country unlawfully by no choice of their own. They have publicly stated they would deport children. These candidates are the sons of immigrants, one was born in Canada, yet they are chomping at the bit to compete with Donald Trump and each other about who is more anti-immigrant. The hypocrisy is undeniable.