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The Coming Surge of Cuban Refugees

No one in Washington seems to be paying any attention to a new Cuban law that takes effect next month, possibly bringing drastic consequences for the United States.

In October, the Cuban government announced that it would no longer require the much-hated exit visa for anyone wishing to travel abroad. All a Cuban citizen will need is a passport and a visa for the country he plans to visit. This new Cuban policy takes effect January 14th.

The problem is, under current American law, a “visit” to the United States can immediately award a Cuban full refugee status, then permanent residency and citizenship, under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

For decades, Cubans have been trying to sail to the US and then dock or swim ashore before immigration agents catch up with them. For those who made it past the US Coast Guard gauntlet, once their feet touched the beach they were given legal admission. During the fiscal year that ended in September, the Coast Guard said it caught 1,275 Cubans trying to arrive by boat—the highest total since 2008. Uncounted others made it ashore, where they immediately received their unique American embrace.

Starting January 14th, however, Cuba will allow them to leave by any means of their choice. And all they’ll have to do is walk off the airplane in Miami or anywhere else in the US to be awarded refugee status. The change could lead to many thousands of new Cuban refugees every month, joining the two million Cubans and their descendants already here. But you don’t hear anyone in Washington even mentioning this problem, given the urgent concerns about Iran, North Korea, the fiscal cliff, and so much else.

The only national leader who’s gotten close to raising this concern is Representative David Rivera, a Florida Republican, who addressed it during a campaign debate in October with his opponent, Joe Garcia—who ended winning the election. Rivera spoke of revising the existing US law—but not to avert a flood of new Cuban refugees. A Cuba hard-liner, he complained about Cubans who availed themselves of the benefits America offers—but then returned to Cuba, even just for a visit. These people, Rivera averred, should not be allowed to become American citizens.

Already the number of Cubans coming to the US under the existing laws is spiking this year. Now, more of them are coming across the borders from Mexico and Canada, immigration officials say.

But that shows a hunger to leave that is growing urgent—even before the new law takes effect.

While the Cuban Adjustment Act is not on the government’s agenda right now, when the flood of new Cuban immigrants begins arriving next month, that is almost certain to change. 

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