More Migration Reform: Cuba Opens Door to Many Illegal Emigres, Defectors

After issuing reforms to its migration law last week which will give most Cubans the right to freely travel abroad without getting permission first, the Cuban government has just announced it will allow tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Cubans who left Cuba illegally in the last two decades to return to the island for visits. This will include not only many defectors but also rafters who headed to the United States during the economic crisis that peaked in 1994 and 1995.

There are several key implications of this new policy. First, and most importantly, it is another significant step in the normalization of relations with the Cuban diaspora. Certainly, any visits made by these Cubans abroad will bring economic benefits to the island. But allowing more Cubans to return to the island of their birth will help accelerate the warming trend between the island and its diaspora. More Cuban Americans, for instance, will now have a stake in U.S. policies that increase their access to the island - and their relatives' access to the U.S. They will also be less inclined to press for or support sanctions that could harm their loved ones or that could jeopardize this new, more open relationship with the island.

But will the strongest opponents of the Cuban government welcome these reforms? Not necessarily. These reforms and their impact on Cuban Americans' attitudes only spell trouble for the U.S. embargo. More and more, it's unclear who really wants the policy to stay in place, and a day will come when the momentum will shift to the reformers, rather than remaining with a dwindling number of supporters of the isolationist status quo.

In particular, Cuba's new migration policies could put pressure on key elements of the embargo, such as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, and even the Cuba Adjustment Act. Each of these policies was created for Cubans fleeing the island. Together they make it easier for Cubans to arrive illegally and to apply for a green card in just one year's time. With so many Cubans able to come and go without persecution by the Cuban government, what remains the basis for these policies?

The 194 and 1995 migration accords with Cuba were signed to halt a flood of Cuban refugees, and both sides agreed to promote safe and legal migration. Though the U.S. stopped bringing rafters at sea to the U.S., and began returning them to Cuba, the U.S.'s continued willingness to accept Cubans who reach our shores ("dry-foot") by illegal means remains a violation of the spirit behind the accords. If left in place, it will now stand in stark contrast to Cuba's new policies which truly encourage legal migration from the island. The Cuban Coast Guard can only catch so many migrants, but there's a reduced incentive to make the crossing at all if the government will now let you just get on a plane.

Cuban policies are only half of the safe and legal equation. Our uniquely generous U.S. immigration policies toward Cubans will now be the sole cause of just about all illegal migration from Cuba to the U.S. And that should offer this or the next administration good reason to consider scrapping the Cuban Adjustment Act, and its wet-foot, dry-foot policy altogether. Perhaps some brave souls in the next Congress will make a push if and when immigration reform comes back.

I had my doubts that the Cuban government would ever make these reforms, but it appears that necessity and pragmatism won the day in Havana. In Washington, there was a time when it made sense to open wide our borders to all Cubans, because they were considered refugees who couldn't go home again. That time was 50 years ago, when Cubans who left their country were actually refugees.