Cuba: the immigration exception


MIAMI -- While debate rages nationally about the steady flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, the people of one neighboring country, arriving in ever-growing numbers, still are playing by special rules.

For reasons historical and political, Cubans continue to enjoy a unique advantage among would-be Americans: Under the policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," those who manage to slip past law-enforcement agents and into the United States generally are allowed to stay. Those who are intercepted at sea are most often sent back.

As the numbers fleeing the Communist regime of Fidel Castro increase, the policy is drawing increasing criticism. More than 1,800 Cubans have been apprehended in the waters off Florida this fiscal year - 50 percent more than at the same point last year, when the number reached a 10-year high.

While television news directors in California can boast of the live cutaway to the high-speed highway chase, their Florida counterparts are pioneering real-time coverage of the high-seas migrant interdiction. Viewers here watched transfixed last fall as federal law-enforcement agents intercepted a boatload of Cubans on a run for the United States. Coast Guard and Homeland Security officers struggled with the 10 men for more than an hour, with a collision at one point knocking four of the migrants off their homemade craft and into the ocean.

The numbers remain far below those of the rafter crisis of 1994, when authorities picked up more than 37,000 balseros, and the total migration is far less than that seen on the U.S.-Mexican border. But the sharp increase, along with several incidents that have been widely publicized here - the televised interdiction last September among them - is fueling new debate over wet foot/dry foot.

"Basically, you're deciding who gets to freedom by whether it's high or low tide, or who can swim better, or who has a better flotation device," said Camila Ruiz, director of government relations for the Cuban-American National Foundation.

Others say the special treatment for Cubans is a no-longer-useful holdover from the Cold War that now serves only to encourage the illegal trips while leaving the United States vulnerable to sudden migrant flows and, possibly, the entry of terrorists.

"A special policy for people fleeing the Soviet empire may have made sense when there was a Soviet Union," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "Now Cuba is just one more loser Third World country that's inevitably going to create discontent and the desire on the part of its people to leave. And so it needs to be treated like everybody else."

The policy, developed by the Clinton administration following the rafter crisis and continued by the Bush administration, appears to have satisfied no one. But the White House has indicated no interest in changing the policy. In January, South Florida's three Cuban-American House members - Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen - asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to review the "immoral" 1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accord, calling the current process "an embarrassment to the United States."

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez has lodged similar appeals, with little success.

"It's a reaction of, yes, there's no disagreement in many of the things that I'm saying, but yet, we're not sure that any other step would be better," said the Florida Republican, who was secretary of housing and urban development during President Bush's first term. "I admit it's a difficult issue to deal with."

Some exile leaders say a failure to address the issue could cost Republicans at the polls. Their support has been seen as pivotal to Bush's success in 2000 and 2004.

"Maybe they thought that Cubans were unconditional," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Miami-based Democracy Movement. "They will know the next election that we stand on defending the issues of the freedom of the Cuban people."

Officially, the United States encourages Cubans to migrate legally, through a lottery by which the country grants 20,000 visas a year. But in a report to Congress last fall, the State Department said Cuba had refused to allow a new registration for the lottery since 1998, was demanding exorbitant fees for the required medical examinations, and was imposing "nearly insurmountable" obstacles to the emigration of medical professionals, professors and teachers.

"It doesn't matter whether the United States issues a visa," said Luis Zuniga, director of the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council. "It's Castro who determines whether that person will come or not."

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