Floridians, Hispanics and the Half-century Old Cuban Adjustment Act

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
  • Sally Kestin
  • Megan O’Matz
  • John Maines

Reporters for the Sun Sentinel

More Floridians than not support ending special immigration privileges for Cubans, though a considerable number are unsure of their position on the complex U.S. policy, according to a poll conducted by the University of Florida Survey Research Center for a South Florida newspaper.

In March, five questions about attitudes toward the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1966 were added to the research center’s monthly Consumer Sentiment Index survey.

The Cuba-related questions were added by UF at the request of the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. The newspaper in January published a series on how the CAA had opened a pipeline for criminals coming to the U.S. from Cuba to commit low-risk, high-profit crimes such as Medicare fraud and marijuana trafficking.

The investigation found Cubans had stolen more than $2 billion from American businesses and taxpayers over two decades. Criminals traveled back and forth to Cuba, smuggling millions to the island, and escaped there to avoid prosecution.

The series, Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline, followed President Barack Obama’s announcement on Dec. 17 that negotiations had begun with Cuba to try to end Cold War-era tensions between the two countries. Obama said he wanted to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and increase travel and commerce to the island.

The CAA, passed as a humanitarian gesture to provide refuge for Cubans fleeing communism, has remained largely unchanged for nearly 50 years. It allows Cuban immigrants to enter the U.S. without visas and become permanent residents in a year. Immigrants from most other countries are turned back if they don't have visas, which can take more than two decades to obtain.

The Obama administration has said it has no plans to change Cuban immigration policy, but the UF poll results reflect public sentiment against it in Florida, the state with the largest Cuban population in the country.  In the March poll, which interviewed 521 Floridians, 37 percent favored ending the CAA, while 27 percent want to keep it. One-third were unsure (Figure 1).

One out of five respondents to the poll identified themselves as Hispanic, and there were some differences between Hispanics and non-Hispanics. On the question of whether the CAA policies should end, 32 percent of Hispanics said they should continue, compared to a quarter (26 percent) of non-Hispanics.

Figure 1.  CAA Opinions by Hispanicity.  Responses to, A federal law called “the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act” allows Cubans to enter the United States and get a green card, giving them permanent residency. Immigrants from other countries must have a visa and those arriving illegally are returned to their home country. Should this policy giving Cubans special immigration status be….”

The poll also asked about the “wet foot/dry foot” policy which began in 1995, after a surge of Cuban rafters took to the seas for the U.S. amid an economic crisis in Cuba.  The policy allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil (“dry foot”) to stay, while those intercepted at sea are returned home. 

Among Hispanics, more wanted to end "wet foot/dry foot" than keep it (Figure 2). 

Figure 2.  Opinions on "wet foot/dry foot" by Hispanicity. Responses to, “Cubans who flee by raft or boat are returned to Cuba if they are intercepted at sea. But if they reach U.S. soil, they’re allowed to stay.  Should this “wet foot/dry foot” policy be….”

"It seems like a strong vote of no confidence in the status quo," said Marc R. Rosenblum, an immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "If this policy loses support in Florida, it's hard to see where there's going to be strong demand to maintain [it]."

Hispanics also came out stronger in opposing travel back to Cuba for those granted refugee status in the U.S., with 45 percent supporting restrictions and 27 percent against. Among all respondents, 32 percent favored travel restrictions compared to 38 percent who did not.

Figure 3.  Opinions on Travel Back to Cuba.  Responses to “This law (Cuban Adjustment Act) was designed to give refuge to people fleeing from political persecution. Nowadays many Cubans who were granted refugee status in the U.S. are returning to Cuba for unlimited visits. Should there be restrictions on how often or under what circumstances Cuban refugees can return to the island? Would you say…..”

"I'm not surprised the general population came out against the policies," said Scott Richards, associate director at UF's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "The fact that Hispanics also seemed to indicate the policies should be changed was noteworthy."

One area of widespread agreement: bringing criminals to justice. An overwhelming majority, 70 percent, said the United States should demand that Cuba return fugitives and take back its citizens ordered deported from the U.S. as a condition of normalizing relations.

Far less certainty came in response to a more complex question regarding children of Cubans: “Children born outside Cuba but who have at least one Cuban parent now receive the same immigration advantages as other Cubans, even though many of these children never lived in Cuba.”

Asked if that policy should change, 42 percent of respondents said they “aren’t sure.”

Momentum for modifying the Cuban Adjustment Act has been building in recent years, even among Cuban-Americans in Congress who have traditionally opposed any changes. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, said at a recent news conference that the Cuban criminal pipeline documented by the Sun Sentinel puts the entire act in jeopardy.

"That's something that I've said is in danger," he said. "While I've seen no serious proposals to reform it, I'm certainly open to a conversation about the sorts of changes that should occur."

PHOTO: Tracey Eaton for the Sun Sentinel   

POSTED:  May 5, 2015

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