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Cuellar: Time to Change Cuban Immigration Policy

A special U.S. immigration policy provision allows Cubans to apply for legal residency status after living in the country for a year. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar says that the provision needs another look.

A civil war of sorts has spilled into Laredo as rival groups of Cubans hang out in the border city's downtown awaiting new arrivals from the island nation.

For the second straight year, the Texas-Mexico border has been the No. 1 destination for Cubans hoping to take advantage of a U.S. immigration policy that allows them to establish legal residency here.

And with the United States moving closer to opening up trade with the island nation, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, says it’s time to change the immigration provision — which he said is part of a Cold War leftover enacted when the country was trying to prevent the spread of communism.

In 2015, about 28,400 Cubans entered Texas through the Laredo field office of Customs and Border Protection, which extends from Del Rio to Brownsville. That figure surpasses the combined totals for the other 19 CBP field offices, which include Miami, Houston, New York and New Orleans. The figure also represents an 82 percent jump from 2014, when 15,600 Cubans entered through the Laredo field office.

The surge comes after last year’s move by the Obama administration to re-establish ties with Cuba. Many Cubans fear they will lose a special designation that allows them to apply for legal residency status, or a “green card,” after living in the country for a year. The measure is part of an agreement reached during the Clinton Administration, known as the “wet foot/dry foot” policy.

Cuellar said the policy should instead be changed as part of a more encompassing immigration-reform package.

“Given the President’s change in policy with Cuba and the opening of diplomatic ties, I think it is appropriate to take a second look at our current immigration policies toward the Caribbean nation [to] bring them in line with our other immigration policies,” he told The Texas Tribune in an email.

“The bases of current policies regarding Cuban immigration were enacted during the Cold War at a time when we were struggling against Communism and had no diplomatic ties with the island nation.  Given the current climate and normalizing of relations I believe Cubans should be treated the same as everyone else,” Cuellar said.

The surge comes at a time when Gov. Greg Abbott is investigating opportunities for Texas businesses in Cuba. Abbott recently traveled to the country to begin a dialogue with Cuban officials and discuss what Texans can do in that country if the U.S. lifts its decades-old trade embargo with the island nation.

Abbott hasn’t called on the government to completely lift the embargo, saying that was a matter for the federal government. And he hasn’t commented on the surge of Cubans to Texas.

For most of the Cubans who have already reached Laredo, however, escaping the communist government could not have come sooner, said Alejandro Ruiz, a Cuban immigrant who migrated in the 1990s. Ruiz runs Cubanos de Libertad in Laredo, a nonprofit he established to help the migrants obtain Social Security cards and work permits.

He said critics of current policy who say all immigrants should be treated the same way don’t understand the situation in Cuba.

“In Mexico or Central America, people who work hard can get ahead," he said.

Ruiz doesn’t think the thawing of relations will get any better regardless of what happens between the American and Cuban governments. He said that re-establishing ties could also prop up the dictatorship.

“I don’t think they’re going to get better for the people. The [government officials] are the ones who will benefit,” he said. “But the people won’t because they don’t give anything to the people.”


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