What's So Special about Cuba?

Why are Cuban unauthorized immigrants treated so well?

The simple answer is that for five decades the rules governing Cuban migration have been dictated by foreign policy concerns. This led officials to define them as refugees, i. e. individuals who had to escape their homeland because of a well-founded fear of persecution. As refugees, they are eligible for benefits unavailable to immigrants, such as loans for airfare if they are outside the US, as is the case with Cubans who come to the US via Spain, and they are also entitled to refugee assistance for one year after arrival or medical assistance and welfare for two years. 

The government's willingness to grant them this status is in keeping with the nation's outstanding record of openness, as attested to by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who describes the United States as the most welcoming nation for displaced people and those fleeing oppression and conflict. 

The root of this warm welcome, which began in the 1960s, however, is not American generosity but rather the desire to discredit Cuba by showing that it, like other Communist states, was morally bankrupt and politically vicious. What better way to do that than to accept all those who wanted to flee that totalitarian state?  While foreign policy makers might have argued that all dealings with Cuba had to be consistent with such Cold War claims, that argument could only hold until the Cold War's end in 1991.

The policy persists today, albeit in somewhat modified form, thanks primarily to the influence of Cuban American elites, including the Congressional delegation from Miami and Senator Menendez of New Jersey. Their efforts have overridden pressure from a wide array of US interest groups, like conservative Midwestern farmers who want access to Cuban markets. These groups probably aren't concerned about Cubans being granted refugee status. Indeed, it is likely that the refugee vs. immigrant issue isn't salient to anyone except the Cuban beneficiaries.

This provision is one more example of the hypocrisy that runs throughout our immigration policy. Whatever justification existed for the policy prior to 1991 no longer exists. Today, Cuban émigrés are motivated by the same factors that drive immigration from other sending states. The threat of violence faced by most citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico is far greater than that faced by Cubans. Moreover, for years officials in these and other sending states responded with greater violence to their critics than Cuba has.

It is also important to note that Cuba invests in social policies that enhance the wellbeing of its citizens at levels unequaled by immigrant sending states such as Mexico and Guatemala, and their African counterparts. In short, the social and political conditions Cubans face are not obviously more dire than those faced by citizens in other major immigrant sending states.

Other Latin American immigrants are familiar with the preferential treatment Cuban unauthorized immigrants receive, and they oppose it. They point out that emigration is hard for everyone, and that they come because they want to escape violence and improve their lives. In other words, they describe many immigrants in terms that could lead a sympathetic, immigrant-receiving state to provide all immigrants with the benefits that only Cubans systematically receive. 

As a matter of principle, and given our self-image as a nation committed to fair play, we should immediately end the favoritism with which we treat Cuban unauthorized immigrants.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.