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A New Crisis of Cuban Migration

By William M. LeoGrande

Originally published in The New York Times

Washington — A standoff in recent weeks that has trapped hundreds of Cuban migrants at Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua as they try to reach the United States is a graphic demonstration that Washington’s migration policy toward Cuba is no longer sustainable. Left unchanged it could produce a crisis on the scale of the 1980 Mariel boatlift or the 1994 balsero (rafters) crisis — if one hasn’t begun already.

Current policy, based on migration accords negotiated with Havana in 1994and 1995, commits the United States to accepting at least 20,000 legal Cuban immigrants annually, and to returning to Cuba migrants intercepted at sea as they try to enter the United States illegally.

Unilaterally, the United States also adopted a “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which allows Cubans who arrive in the United States (“dry foot”) to remain in the country under a special status called parole and, a year later, become eligible under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 to seek permanent residency. No other foreign nationality enjoys such privileged status.

The Cuban government has long argued that these policies encourage illegal migration and human trafficking. Still, the problem of Cubans coming to the United States illegally has been relatively minor until recently.

In the years since the migration agreements were signed, about 4,000 Cubans annually have eluded the United States Coast Guard, reached Florida beaches, and claimed “dry foot” status. Some 2,000 to 3,000 othershave been intercepted at sea (“wet foot”) each year and returned to Cuba. Because crossing the Florida Strait on rickety rafts or dilapidated boats is so dangerous, and the chances of being caught by the Coast Guard are high, the flow of illegal migrants remained manageable.

It is manageable no longer. The number of migrants has surged since last December, when President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, announced their intention to normalize relations. Would-be immigrants fear that reconciliation foreshadows repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act, prompting Cuban migrants to act now lest they miss their chance.

With that in mind, Cubans have found an air-land route to the United States on which everyone can be a “dry foot” who can expect entry. In the past 12 months, more than 45,000 Cubans entered the United States from Mexico — without having to risk crossing a perilous desert as Mexicans and Central Americans do.

The new route is possible because in 2013, the Cuban governmentabolished its requirement that citizens obtain government permission to travel abroad. Today, most Cubans can travel to any country that will grant them a visa. Ecuador even admitted them without one until last Tuesday, and Guyana still does.

As a result, would-be migrants have been flying to Ecuador to begin a long, surreptitious trek north, without visas, through Colombia, Central America and Mexico. At the Texas border, they simply declare their nationality and are admitted under the “dry foot” policy.

Hiring “coyotes,” as smugglers of migrants are called, to guide the trek is expensive, but many Cubans have family members in the United States willing to pay. Recently, Cubans armed with cellphones have beencrowdsourcing their own smuggling routes by following advice on social media from those who have gone before them.

The current crisis in Central America was triggered on Nov. 10 when Costa Rican authorities broke up a smuggling operation, leaving 1,600 Cubans stranded. When Costa Rica tried to send them north, Nicaragua closed the border. As more Cubans arrive daily, the number stuck there has reached 4,000, with no end in sight.

At a recent meeting of diplomats from the region, Costa Rica proposed creating a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow Cubans free passage to the United States border. Nicaragua rejected the proposal, but even the suggestion of such a plan should be a red flag for Washington. Latin Americans are getting tired of enforcing a United States immigration policy toward Cubans that isn’t working and discriminates against their own citizens. The contrast between Washington’s privileged treatment of Cuban migrants and its coldness toward Central Americans, including children fleeing criminal violence, is indefensible.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that it has no intention of changing current migration policy, for fear that any hint of change will touch off a stampede. United States diplomats reaffirmed that position at a meeting with their Cuban counterparts last Monday. The meeting produced no new thinking about how to resolve the crisis.

There is a solution to this conundrum. If Cuban migrants trying to enter the United States by land were treated the same as those intercepted at sea and returned to Cuba, the incentive to make the long, dangerous passage north would be drastically reduced.

This would not require amending the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows for the adjustment of status only for Cubans who have been admitted or paroled into the United States. It would require only changing the “dry foot” policy of admitting on parole anyone who sets foot on United States territory. That policy is a matter of executive discretion. To avoid a last-minute exodus from Cuba, it could be rescinded by the attorney general without prior notice.

An end to the “wet foot/dry foot” distinction should be accompanied by a significant increase in the number of Cubans admitted legally, so that those who want to immigrate to the United States have more opportunities to do so safely.

But to do nothing is to face a slow-motion migration crisis that will be interminable. Cuba will not reimpose travel limits on its citizens, and Latin America will not cooperate indefinitely by blocking Cubans’ transit when Washington’s policy is to let in all Cubans who arrive — and keep other Latin Americans out.

For Washington to refuse to change a policy when new circumstances have rendered it utterly ineffective makes about as much sense as King Canute trying to hold back the tide.

William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a co-author with Peter Kornbluh of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”