August 17, 2011
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
U.S. Rep. David Rivera said Tuesday he wants to sanction Cuban Americans who return to the island less than five years after they left, alleging that they are abusing a loophole in the Cuban Adjustment Act and helping the country’s communist system.
The South Florida Republican submitted a bill on Aug. 1 to deal with the growing complaint that Cubans benefit from the CAA as refuge-seekers but then return to the island just to visit relatives or even to vacation.
Approved in 1966 for the tens of thousands of Cubans who were fleeing the communist government at the height of the Cold War, the CAA offers U.S. residency 366 days after arrival and other benefits. Citizens of no other country receive such benefits.
“The original intent of the CAA was to provide status to Cuban refugees because they were not able to return to Cuba,” Rivera told El Nuevo Herald. “That political situation remains the same today, with a communist totalitarian dictatorship in power.”
“We have to do something about those who avail themselves of an act designed to protect them from persecution and then travel back to the persecuting country in an obvious abuse of the law,” he added.
Criticism of the CAA has been building in recent years around the United States and even among South Florida’s older Cuban exile community, as growing numbers of Cuban arrivals argue that they left the island for economic rather than political reasons.
About 300,000 Cuban-Americans visited the island in 2010, and the Raúl Castro government has said it is reviewing migration regulations — a possible hint that more will be allowed to return in order to help boost the island’s economy.
“The Castro dictatorship is hoping for a lifesaver with increased travel,” Rivera said. “This bill will hopefully throw it an anchor.”
Rivera’s bill, HR2771, requires the Department of Homeland Security to rescind the adjusted state of Cubans who return to the island before they obtain their U.S. citizenship. Cubans generally need up to five years to become U.S. citizens.
Aides said he had not publicized the bill because he is waiting until Congress resumes to amend the wording of a section that would have affected all Cuban arrivals and not just those who return to the island.
The current wording would require Cubans to wait five years – instead of the current one year and one day — before they are covered by the CAA, receiving immediate U.S. residency and other benefits. The new wording, emailed by Rivera’s office to El Nuevo Herald, says Cubans will be ineligible for CAA if they return to the country before their status is adjusted.
Congress watchers said the bill has a chance of passing because it could be perceived as both tightening U.S. immigration regulations and taking a jab at the Cuban government.
Supporters of more open travel to Cuba immediately condemned Rivera’s proposal as a attempt to halt the trend toward increased trips by both Cuban Americans to visit relatives and non-Cuban U.S. residents on academic, religious and other legal visits.
“The Cuban government has spent its life dividing the Cuban family, and now we have a person like Rivera, who for political reasons does the same and divides the people,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement in Miami.
“What he is doing is punishing the Cubans and not the dictator,” added Sánchez.
“He is holding the Cuban community hostage to his maniacal desire to prevent people from travelling to Cuba,” said Ira Kurzban, an immigration lawyer who has represented several Cuba travel companies.
Hard-line critics of the Cuban government threaded carefully on the Rivera bill, agreeing with the congressman that Cubans should not be allowed to return quickly to the island but arguing that the CAA’s benefits to should be protected.
“That act is being used by people who have no hint of persecution,” said radio commentator Ninoska Pérez, referring to Cubans who describe themselves as economic migrants yet obtain the CAA’s benefits.
“I don’t want to see Cubans lose those privileges,” added Pérez, who has repeatedly referred to the abuses of the CAA in her radio program over the past month. But Rivera’s bill “is what happens when you abuse a law approved for the politically persecuted.”
Mauricio Claver-Carone director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee in Washington, said he also wants to preserve the benefits of the CAA but approves of Rivera’s efforts to sanction those who travel to Cuba too quickly.
“There should be consequences for people who adjust their status under the act and then travel back to the island using a loophole that refugees from other nations don’t have,” Claver-Carone said.
“We agree to put Cubans on a level playing field with refugees from other countries like Iran,” he noted, adding that U.S. regulations bar refuge seekers from returning home, at least until they become American citizens. “That unfair advantage needs to be fixed.”