The Normalisation of US-Cuba Relations - Immigration policies Reform amidst Changing Ties

Spotlight By Patrick Denenea and Sophie-Anne Baril

Immigration via water has traditionally been the most common method —and a dangerous one at that — of Cuban immigrants trying to gain entry into US territory. However, new ways of exiting Cuba have been used recently. One of these methods involves flying into Ecuador, then entering Colombia, and heading north through Central America to finally arrive in Mexico, where they can stay up to 90 days before attempting to get to the United States.

On June 8, United States Coast Guard official Charles David Jr. repatriated 34 Cuban immigrants back to Cuba.1 This incident recapitulates the recent increase in Cuban immigration to the United States. At the root of this increase lie President Obama’s recent attempts to normalise US relations with Cuba. Fundamentally, the first steps of normalisation have led to more lenient laws regarding US citizens’ travel to Cuba. As this increase of Cubans continues to draw more attention, the US government must reconsider its inherently unfair policy toward Cuban immigration.2

The normalisation of US relations with Cuba directly correlates to the increase in the flow of Cubans to the United States. Since October 2015, over 4,300 Cubans have attempted to migrate to the United States by sea.3 Fearful of a potential change in US immigration policy that will limit their easy access to the country, Cuban islanders are fleeing their homeland in historic numbers. Senior Writer Catherine E. Shoichet of CNN notes that after Obama's 2014 announcement on mending relations with Cuba, the number of Cubans coming to the United States has increased significantly.4 Between 2014 and 2015, there was a 38.6 percent increase of maritime interceptions of Cuban migrants by the US Coast Guard.5 In light of the changing relations and increasing number of immigrants, the time has come for the United States to seriously consider altering its Cuban immigration policy.

The Policy and Recent Immigration Increase

In 1966, US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), which offered asylum and a quick path to permanent residency to any Cuban native. Added on as an amendment to the CAA in mid-1990s, the ‘Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot’ policy encompasses the US government’s current approach toward Cuban immigration.6 Officially known as the US-Cuba Immigration Accord, the ‘Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot’ policy requires Cuban migrants intercepted at sea to be sent back to Cuba or to another country; however, those who reach US soil are allowed to stay in the United States.7 Today, this policy places Cuban immigrants in a privileged situation uncommon to other immigrants to the United States.

Cubans greatly benefit from the 1966 law in more ways than one. For instance, they receive “medical care, food stamps and [can] register for eight months of cash payments, along with an I-94 immigration form confirming their legal status.”8 Unlike other Latin American and Caribbean migrants (e.g. Mexicans, Haitians), after 12 months of residing in the United States, Cubans are also allowed to apply for permanent residence.9 Although the original intention of the 1995 amendment was to decrease the number of Cubans migrating to the United States, there has yet been a significant rise in Cuban immigration.

Immigration via water has traditionally been the most common method —and a dangerous one at that — of Cuban immigrants trying to gain entry into US territory. However, new ways of exiting Cuba have been used recently. One of these methods involves flying into Ecuador, then entering Colombia, and heading north through Central America to finally arrive in Mexico, where they can stay up to 90 days before attempting to get to the United States.10 Since the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy applies to all Cubans, regardless of geographical location, ‘dry feet’ Cubans, who make it into the United States through Mexico are allowed to remain.

A Call for Reform

Upon close inspection, the 50-year-old policy is flawed in several ways. First, it gives Cubans a sure-proof advantage over other Latin American immigrants — an advantage that The New York Times has labelled ‘Cuban Privilege.’11 The original CAA was implemented so that the Cuban people could find shelter from the island’s communist government — while simultaneously sending an anti-communist message to the world.

Taken out of context, the basis of the CAA is sound. People should be granted asylum if their livelihoods become unviable, whether through economic destitution or state repression. However, the laws currently in effect imply that only Cubans deserve an automatic promise of asylum by the US government. Meanwhile, non-Cuban immigrants who face equally, if not more, dangerous conditions at home struggle to navigate the asylum process and procure refugee status. The Cuban Privilege perpetuated by these policies clearly discriminates against foreign nationals from other countries in the Americas, who seek asylum in the United States.12

A second issue with the existing immigration laws is the problem they pose for the Cuban government. To many Cubans, the prospect of gaining instant asylum is a tempting bargain; as a result, many Cubans have made the treacherous journey in hopes of reaching US soil. Simply put, these Washington-bred policies are an open invitation for Cubans to come to the United States.

In effect, the presence of these laws places doubt on the Cuban government’s legitimacy in the international realm. In 1966, the United States enacted their Cuban asylum policy on the basis that the Cuban authoritarian government was oppressing its people.13 The fact that these laws are still in effect suggests that the Cuban government continues to be the same oppressive force that it once was in 1966. However, this implication is complicated by the recent warming of relations between the United States and Cuba in 2014. How can the United States preserve this antiquated policy if it supposedly views the nation in a new, favourable light?

This policy perpetuates the assumption that Cuba is an unfit place to live; given this impression, it should not be a surprise that thousands of Cubans come to the United States hoping for a higher quality of life. If the United States intends to treat Cuba as a diplomatic partner in the international sphere, it cannot keep treating Cuba’s citizens as survivors of an evil regime stuck in the Cold War era. While Cuban citizens still do not enjoy high qualities of life, the current US immigration policy for Cuban citizens strongly suggests that the fears faced by Cubans are more legitimate than those held by immigrants from other American countries such as Honduras or El Salvador.

A Call against Reform

Many argue that these immigration policies should remain intact because Cuba’s citizens still suffer from human rights violations. While this is true, to facilitate the immigration of Cubans alone is unfair to other citizens of the Americas. As previously mentioned, thousands of people suffer human rights atrocities and persistent violence in their homelands, not just in Cuba; however, the immigration policies designed for them are far less generous in granting asylum and residency.

Another convincing argument for the preservation of the current Cuban immigration policy is the case of Cuban remittances. Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, estimates that about one-third of Cuban islanders receive remittances from abroad.14 “When you send $100 or $200 a month to Cuba — where the average salary is around $24 a month — that makes a substantial difference in people's standard of living," reports Duany.15 Remittances made up somewhere between two and five percent of Cuba’s GDP in 2013, and have helped to not only sustain the livelihoods of Cuban families but also to fund 32 percent of Cuban businesses on the island.16 Some may argue that the benefits of remittances give enough reason to continue the generous immigration standards for Cubans. However, remittances have played proportionately large roles outside of Cuba as well. Quite shockingly, approximately 16 percent of El Salvador’s GDP is based on remittances from abroad.17

With this in mind, the importance of remittances alone does not justify the unfair Cuban Privilege.


In the upcoming US presidential election, immigration policy stands out as one of the most hotly contested topics. Although Cuban immigration is not at the centre of the immigration debate, it needs to become a priority for immigration reform. As President Obama’s term comes to a close, the weight of immigration issues will be passed on to his successor. While presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, has not made any formal comment about Cuban immigration, Republican Nominee Donald Trump has shown concern for the unequal migration policies. In a private interview with Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, Trump expressed his displeasure with the current policy on Cuban immigration stating, “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing?”18

Although it originates from well-intentioned policy from the Cold War era, Cuban Privilege presents an unfair situation for other immigrants around the world who suffer from violence and oppression. Therefore, limiting Cuban Privilege must be on the agenda for the next administration so that no immigrants receive preferential treatment from antiquated policies.

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[1]“US Coast Guard Repatriates 34 Cuban Migrants.” Caribbean News Now! Accessed June 25, 2016.


[3] Ibid.

[4] "Cuban Immigrants: Deal Paves Way for Thousands Going to U.S." CNN. January 09, 2016. Accessed June 28, 2016.

[5] U.S. Coast Guard. “Alien Migrant Interdiction.” Accessed June 13, 2016.

[6] "Cuban Immigrants: Deal Paves Way for Thousands Going to U.S." CNN. January 09, 2016. Accessed June 28, 2016.

[7]Jefferson Morley. “U.S.-Cuba Migration Policy.” Washington Post. Accessed June 13, 2016.

[8]William La Jeunesse. “Cubans entering U.S. at record pace, fearing doors may close.” Fox News Latino. Accessed June 13, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ann Louise Bardach. “Why are Cubans so Special?” The New York Times. Accessed June 13, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lyndon Johnson. “President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Remarks at the Signing of the Immigration Bill” (speech, Liberty Island, New York, October 3, 1965), LBJ Presidential Library,

[14] Rob Lovitt. “American Remittances Speed Change in the Cuban Economy.” NBC News. Accessed June 13, 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Daniela Villacres. “Beyond Remittances: Framing Diaspora-Driven Development in El Salvador.” Migration Information Source. Accessed July 5, 2016.

[18] Adam Smith. “Exclusive Interview: Donald Trump talks Cuba, oil drilling and ‘badly hurt’ Marco Rubio.” Tampa Bay Times. Accessed June 13, 2016.

Patrick Denenea studies international relations and Latin American affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In the summer of 2015, he studied the intersection of nature and culture in Ecuador. He also has extensively studied Cuba, writing on topics including sociolinguistics, history, and politics.

Sophie-Anne Baril studies International Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. She has researched and written expansively on topics involving Latin America and the Caribbean. Specifically, her work has included pieces on Latin American and Caribbean politics, immigration, human rights, and international development. Recently, she completed a Capstone paper comparing Haitian and Mexican immigration to the United States.

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