Tuesday, May 8, 2007

"Asylees" and the desire to visit home

A Miami Herald op-ed today by the premier pro-embargo lobbyist argues, as one might expect, against any changes in current U.S. policy. It attacks the 1992 policy contained in the Cuba Democracy Act as if it were a gift to the Cuban government, failing to note that it was negotiated, approved, and endorsed by the revered Jorge Mas Canosa, who was not a softie. It contains the routine Calle Ocho slander against the motives of people on the other side of the debate, who “have adopted the regime’s insidious mantra as their own.”

I will be getting into the broader travel debate soon, but here I want to treat a myth that appears in this article and in some discussions by Administration officials – that Cubans who come to America are “asylum seekers,” i.e. they gain entry based on a claim of persecution. Based on that falsehood, the article goes on to argue that Cuban Americans should not have an unrestricted right to return to the island for family visits. It is cheeky if not hypocritical, the argument goes, to demand a right to visit Cuba if you gained entry to the United States by claiming you were persecuted there.

The problem is that relatively few Cuban immigrants (22 percent of Cuban immigrants in 2003-2005, the last three years for which data are available), enter in the legal category of refugees or asylees – i.e. by claiming they would be persecuted if returned home.

Why? Because they don’t have to. Successive U.S. Administrations have adopted a policy of admitting Cubans who arrive on U.S. territory or present themselves at the Mexican border without a U.S. visa. (More detail here.) Those migrants are admitted because of their nationality, not based on a legal claim of persecution. Most become permanent residents one year later under a policy enabled but not required by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Similarly, Cubans who immigrate through the visa lottery conducted by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana are not admitted based on a claim of persecution.

There is plenty to debate about U.S. travel restrictions and our immigration policy toward Cubans. But there is no basis for arguing that Cuban Americans are hypocritical, or are violating a principle of immigration law, if they want to go to Cuba to visit or help their family.

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