As Cuba Lifts Its Travel Ban, Three Things the U.S. Should Do

Beginning today, the Cuban policy of requiring citizens to obtain an invitation to visit abroad and permission from domestic authorities to exit the country, is no more. This is a profoundly significant change. Given that Cubans will still need to procure visitor or immigrant visas to most other countries and most without family abroad will have a hard time coming up with the money for the trip, it won’t likely cause a rush for the exits. But the new rules pave the way for a new relationship between country and citizen, and between those who stay and those who have left. The door will now remain open between each, both emotionally and financially.

Though millions of Cubans can now, in principal if not in practical terms, leave the island as they sit fit, there are exceptions for national security and other reasons, and it remains to be seen how Cuban authorities intend to apply them. Last week we learned that Cuban doctors – in whom the Cuban government invests much and expects to return the investment either at home or abroad (on behalf of the Cuban government which contracts them out) – will in fact be free to travel under the new rules. But will critics of the government be free to come and go? The more broadly these new rules extend to Cubans, the more pressure it could put on the United States to change its migration policies toward the island.

If optics matter, we may soon see the administration use its executive authority to further loosen its own restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba (to the extent it can). Yes, you might have heard, Americans must seek  permission from the U.S. Department of Treasury in order to be allowed to use our passports to travel to Cuba. The irony of the U.S. “[welcoming] any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,’’ as a State Department spokesman put it last week, without doing the same for our own population, will now be painfully obvious.

But it’s not just about optics. It’s about opportunity and the political space to seize it. These Cuban travel reforms provide the Obama administration with an historic opportunity to end our open-door migration policy for Cubans that with every passing year becomes more untenable – especially in a political cycle likely to see action on immigration reform. No other nationality on Earth enjoys the benefits Cubans do, including the right to step foot on U.S. soil illegally and qualify for a green card one year after doing so, and collecting generous adjustment benefits at taxpayer expense to boot.

Following the Cuban Revolution, the United States allowed thousands of Cubans into the country on a temporary basis using existing ‘parole’ authority on the presumption that they were all basically refugees. But after several years, it became clear that those Cubans would not be able to go home and so Congress passed a law, the 1966 Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, to allow – but not require - the U.S. Attorney General to adjust Cubans’ status to permanent residency after one year. But with no end date to it, the law remained on the books and each administration kept the policies in place. (For a longer explanation of U.S. policies, see this excellent report.)

The only time a U.S. administration has reined in its open door policy toward Cubans in any real way was following the mass migrations of 1994 and 1995, when Cubans were reeling from the loss of their main benefactor and trading partners, the Soviet Bloc. Seeking an end to the crisis, the Clinton administration signed two agreements with Cuba, with the goal of promoting safe and legal migration. What resulted, however, was a U.S. half-measure, the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy of returning Cuban migrants found at sea, while still accepting and adjusting those who made it to dry land.

It could be that the Clinton administration stopped short of full implementation of the accords due to staunch opposition in electoral vote-rich South Florida to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Nearly 20 years later, the dynamics are quite changed. The once all-powerful hard-line segment of the Cuban American community has shrunk and continues to do so. President Obama carried roughly half of the Cuban American vote in Florida in his successful 2012 re-election bid, demonstrating that the community is no longer monolithic and no longer votes for the embargo above all else. On the contrary, the president may have performed so strongly in Cuban American districts precisely because he prioritized Cuban American family reunification in his policies toward the island.

Even hard-line Cuban American politicians now have mixed feelings about keeping the door open to Cubans. On the one hand, they need the policy to remain in place because it supports their narrative for continuing the embargo. On the other, they now realize that continuing to leave the door open will be the undoing of the embargo itself. Senator Marco Rubio spelled out this fear more than five years ago when he was still serving in the Florida legislature:

“What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else . . . if they go back and forth, that is to say, if they’re not exiles at all? In that case, why should Cubans be any different? The whole structure would have unraveled had something not been done.”

As a freshman U.S. senator, Rubio is now positioning himself as a leader on immigration reform in the Republican Party. It’s a smart move if he has serious presidential ambitions and hopes to gain credibility with non-Cuban Latinos (who number far more than and identify far less with their Cuban American counterparts). It is also a good way to play offense and defense on Cuba policy. Meanwhile, Rubio’s colleague, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, another staunch defender of the Cuba embargo, is expected to chair the Foreign Relations Committee. Reforming Cuba policy in Congress will be no easy feat in the next couple of years.

But the administration doesn’t need Congress to seize this historic opportunity and normalize U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba, if for no other reason than because it’s a drain on U.S. tax dollars and a glaring inequity compared to a far more valuable voting bloc in the next elections, non-Cuban Latinos.

 There are three things, at a minimum, that the Obama administration can and should do in the coming months:

1.       Restart stalled bilateral migration talks aimed at ensuring safe and legal migration. These talks are needed now more than ever, as they could, for example, address consular staff shortages in Washington and Havana that will be felt worse with increased travel back and forth by Cubans.

2.       End the U.S. policy of paroling in Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil without a legal visa, and with it, the policy of adjusting the status of Cubans to permanent residents after one year. Cubans who can legitimately claim persecution would not be blocked, but simply be subject to the same rules as other nationals.

3.       Preserve or even slightly increase, at least  in the medium term, the 20,000 immigrant visas currently allotted to Cubans, as well as the family reunification program that has fast-tracked more Cubans into the country to be with their families, both as a means of avoiding any panic on the island.

Not one of these measures requires the approval of Congress. Lifting the U.S. government travel ban on Cuba for all Americans? Now, that’s a different story.