Florida Senator Marco Rubio, in 2008 when he was the speaker of the Florida legislature, gave a remarkably candid explanation of why he wanted to curtail, as much as possible, the right of Cubans living in the United States to travel to Cuba. He told The New York Times:
I would never criticize anyone for visiting family members. But that wasn’t the problem. What you had was a situation where people would come to Miami from Cuba, stay for a year and a day and then go back. And what this was doing was threatening the sustainability of the Cuban Adjustment Act itself, the U.S. law that gives Cubans who come to this country a special status as political exiles rather than immigrants.
“What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else,” Rubio asked, “if they go back and forth, that is to say, if they’re not exiles at all? In that case, why should Cubans be any different? The whole structure would have unraveled had something not been done.”
The law Rubio is referring to—the Cuban Adjustment Act—was passed in 1966. The act’s been tweaked over the years and is currently part of Washington’s wet-foot/dry-foot policy, whereby any Cuban who touches US soil is allowed to stay and, once a year has passed, can get residency status, that is, a green card, and then citizenship.
That privilege, though, is based on the idea that Cubans are political refugees. So, Rubio is saying, they need to act like political refugees. They need to act, in other words, like migrants from, say, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who in fact do fear for their lives when they return home, and not just for being a political activist but just for being. Last year, between five and ten Honduran children were killed after being deported back to Honduras from the United States.
Of course, if Rubio really wanted to grab attention and position himself for 2016, he could seize on the implications of his question—“What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else?”—to use the Cuban Adjustment Act as the template for a broader immigration reform bill: Adjustment for All!
It wouldn’t be hard, at least in terms of the wording: just take the word Cuba in the act’s operational phrase (“the status of any alien who is a native of Cuba who…may be adjusted by the Attorney General…to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence”) and change it to “Latin America” (or, if we are really thinking big, “the world”). You’d have an immigration reform that has worked perfectly—for some—for almost half a century. Then every migrant might be lucky enough to have an experience similar to the Cuban-born Karel Suarez: “he flew to Mexico and crossed the border. ‘I was only for like six hours at the border,’ Suarez said. ‘After six hours they gave me my papers and said ‘Welcome to the United States.’”