[Editor’s Note: This is part of an article written in Spanish by Progreso Weekly contributor Rachel Rojas after the announcement last week by the Obama administration that the “wet-foot-dry-foot” addendum to the Cuban Adjustment Act had been rescinded. Rojas had the opportunity of interviewing Miami immigration attorney Ira Kurzban in the summer of 2016, regarding the Cuban Adjustment Act. His words and experience offer insight into the confusion over the CAA and the wet-foot-dry-foot policy.]
“Though the Cuban Adjustment Act and certain Cuban laws remain in effect, today’s announcement goes a long way to putting our relationship with Cuba on equal terms with our relationships with other neighbors,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a press release on Thursday (Jan. 12).
In effect, Public Law 89-732 (89th Congress, 2nd session, Nov. 2, 1966), signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson remains in effect. Since December 2015, when a new migratory crisis ended with thousands of Cubans marooned in Costa Rica, the countries in that region began to analyze the “hook” laws that said that, while they received Cuban migrants in transit to the United States, they would also receive their own deported citizens. These have never enjoyed the privileges of the Cubans to settle in the U.S.
On Oct. 29, 2016, nine Latin American governments presented a formal petition to Washington. The document asked the U.S. to “analyze and revise” the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “dry-feet-wet-feet” policy, which would be considered as “a first step to halt a worsening of this complex situation” and “part of a definitive solution” to the problem.
The repeal accomplished this week affects the “dry-foot-wet-foot” policy that, since 1995, allowed Cubans who stepped on U.S. soil to remain in the country legally, obtain a work permit and gain access to monetary, social and medical benefits.
The Adjustment Act, signed by President Johnson in 1966, was identified as “An Act to adjust the status of Cuban refugees to that of lawful permanent residents of the United States, and for other purposes.” It permitted Cubans to obtain stable residence in the U.S. without leaving for one year, so long as the migrants arrived with a visa or obtained a parole at the border.
At a meeting in 2016 between Progreso Weekly and Ira Kurzban, a prestigious immigration lawyer in Florida, he explained that the United States has a long history with these programs and that the Cuban Adjustment Act was not the only one of its kind.
“In 1956, Hungarian refugees arrived in the same way, under a special law. And before that, there was a law for the refugees of World War Two,” he said, adding that another special law was passed for Vietnamese refugees.
Except that this law, for the Cubans, “is the only one that has not framed a length of time, so it could last forever. If they had wanted to make it like any other law of this type, it would have read, for example, ‘if you are Cuban and came between 1959 and 1966, you could become a resident of the United States.’
“It would have protected all the people who came between those years. But it doesn’t say that. It says only that ‘if you are Cuban and arrive in the United States and remain here for two years, you can become a resident.’ And later, in the 1980s, they changed the permanence to one year.
“Of course, this has a lot to do with C.I.A. policy, with Operation Peter Pan, with the embargo and with the policy of Florida toward Cuba, because [Florida] became a very important state in the elections and the Cuban vote was very, very strong.
“For a long time, the Cubans — by majority — voted for the Republican Party. Then they could make a big difference. And they vote. Most Cubans vote; they not only talk about voting but in fact do so.”
Rachel D. Rojas: What does it mean to obtain a parole to enter the United States?
Ira Kurzban: There are many Cubans who arrived between 1959 and 1965, approximately, whose immigration status is a parolee. Parole means that when a person tries to enter the United States without holding a visa, the government has the right to grant him entry temporarily.
This is not admission to the United States. Rather, its the equivalent of a person who stands on the country’s border. A person can enter the country with a parole, but his legal status is the same as that of any other person on the border.
In the United States today, there are people who entered the country in 1960 or ’65 and hold only a document that says “parole.” Those people don’t receive the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act because they don’t qualify for it. They might have a criminal record or some other problem and simply don’t qualify [for permanent residence] after half a century.
They are not U.S. citizens, nor do they have legal status, as if they were still on the U.S. border. The law says that when a person is in an airport, in some other type of border, either Mexico or Canada, and tries to enter U.S. soil, the government cannot give him entry, admission, because the person does not have a visa.
At the same time, [the government] is not going to keep the person in the airport or border forever, so it issues a parole to allow his physical entry into the United States. But, legally, [the parolee] has no rights, which is different from the person on the border. So, there are many people here who don’t receive the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act. They can receive a work permit but really don’t have a legal status.
Then, the Adjustment Act became a way to attract hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the United States without any reference or proof that they were really persecuted. For example, we have many Vietnamese and Indochinese who came in 1971.
They were told that “if you came from Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia, between such-and-such a date that year, you can ask for residence.” That’s what we call an adjusted status. That’s the definition of the Cuban Adjustment Act; it means adjusted status to obtain residence in the United States.
Now, with the Cubans it happens that, because the U.S. government cannot send anybody back, it gives parole to everyone. In all cases, it has to allow those people in.
Let’s say that you’re a Cuban and live in Peru. You arrive at the U.S. border with a Peruvian passport and say “I am Cuban.” They cannot deport you to Cuba and Peru might not accept you back, so they have to give you a parole so you can enter. After you remain here for one year and one day, you can apply for residence.
That way, more than a million people have entered [the U.S.] I don’t know the exact figure but it must be close to that, from 1966 until today.
Rojas: Does the Act say anywhere that the people who arrive must ask for political asylum?
Kurzban: Political asylum is different. Actually, there are three paths: either you ask for political asylum, or ask for a permit to remain in the U.S. because your life is in danger, or ask for residence here if you believe that you’ll be tortured in your homeland.
Those three options are called “asylum,” although they’re really three different laws: Political asylum; Holding a Removal, i.e., they can’t return you to a country where your life is in danger; and they can’t send you back to a country where you might be tortured.
The Cubans who come in illegally don’t qualify for the Adjustment Act, because they don’t enter with a visa or don’t arrive at a border spot where they can get a parole, which is what they need to qualify for the law. If a Cuban entered illegally, he has no right to abide by the Adjustment Act, and for that reason he typically asks for political asylum in the U.S.
Rojas: Is there any other exception in the law, in the legal mechanism, that benefits Cubans in particular?
Kurzban: Oh, yes. First, we have a special parole program for the Cubans. It says that if a person is already here enjoying residence, and has a relative in Cuba who has signed up for an immigration lottery (what we in Cuba call “Bombo”) and the relative wins the lottery, he can come to the U.S. and get his residence. We have nothing like it for any other country.
The second parole program enables a Cuban whose parents live in the U.S. to apply for a visa that could be issued in two years. He would also have a chance to get parole.