The forementioned immigration policy centers on a hollow political and economic relationship dating back to the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The standing policy provides immediate status and financial incentives for most Cubans who illegally enter the United States undetected. It encourages them to risk their lives by “taking to the sea” unlawfully and urges some to severely injure themselves when faced with interdiction at sea to prompt medical evacuation so they may enjoy those benefits on landing in the United States.
Illegal Immigration Routes
The seaward immigration of Cubans falls into two distinct patterns. Some entrust their lives to professional smuggling ventures supported by transnational criminal organizations, while others pool their resources to build homemade, unseaworthy rafts referred to as rusticas, powered by rudimentary means. Those with enough money prefer “go-fasts,” vessels built for smuggling that are capable of high speeds to evade law enforcement. Professional smugglers operating go-fasts have no regard for the human lives they transport, often putting the migrants on board in harm’s way to escape capture. Go-fast smuggling costs upwards of $15,000 per person and has a 70 percent success rate as opposed to a 25 percent success rate by rustica.1
The most direct route to the United States is approximately 90 miles across the Florida Strait, a body of water separating Southeast Florida and Cuba’s north shore. Another gaining popularity in recent years is from the shores of Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río, 140 nautical miles west to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula or even to points farther south in Central America. Once ashore, Cuban immigrants link up with human trafficking networks that transport these vulnerable individuals up to the United States’ southwest border.
Cubans with adequate resources will also leverage their country’s increasingly accessible exit-visa system to depart legally by air and circumnavigate the Caribbean to the British Virgin Islands, where they are finally smuggled by boat into the U.S. Virgin Islands. While a trafficking network coordinates the entire trip, the journey across the two miles of water separating the British and U.S. territory in the Lesser Antilles is the only illegal portion of this trip, creating a significant challenge for law-enforcement officials.2
Due to the clandestine and disorganized nature of illegal immigration with a maritime nexus, it is difficult to estimate how many actually die at sea. Nevertheless, some rough estimates deduce that as many as 10 percent perish in transit.3 In Fiscal Year 2014 alone, nearly 4,000 Cubans were interdicted at sea, which is the highest in the past five years.4 It is believed this only represents approximately 40 percent of the total flow of Cubans from the shores of their homeland to the United States.5 This, coupled with the over 22,000 Cubans who entered the United States at customs stations along the Canadian and Mexican border in FY 14 is indicative of how large the yearly Cuban diaspora is.6 For these reasons, it’s important and relevant for the U.S. and Cuban governments to maintain a dialogue grounded in operations to support safety of life at sea, interdiction, and illegal-immigration deterrence initiatives.
Current Immigration Policy
Despite the risk of extreme danger, many Cubans are still inclined to tempt fate in the hopes of a better life in the United States. The push factors of their illegal journeys, including the deep economic malaise in Cuba, are a fairly well documented phenomenon. Less understood are the unique pull factors formed through decades of U.S. policy that draw Cubans to emigrate from their homeland. Though comprehensive immigration reform may be a distant prospect at this time, smaller changes to limit these pull factors may at least ease some of the pressure coming from Cuban immigrants.
The foundational pull features are rooted in three U.S. immigration policies dating as far back as the height of the Cold War. The first, the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1966, allows Cubans to attain legal permanent resident status (LPR) after arriving in the United States (either legally or illegally) and being physically present for a minimum of one year—an opportunity no other immigrant group has under U.S. law.7 The second, the Refugee Assistance Act of 1980, provides Cubans, regardless of legal or illegal entry into the United States, with the same financial benefits and services as refugees and asylum seekers. Despite not being automatically classified as “refugees” under law, Cuban immigrants are eligible to receive over $1,600 per month for up to seven years with the special “Cuban-Haitian Entrant” status provision in the 1980 law.8 The third policy, the 1994/1995 U.S.–Cuban Migration Accords, aims to promote safe, legal, and orderly immigration to the United States by deterring dangerous, illegal sea crossings.9 The agreements formally open dialogue on illegal immigration, commit the Cuban government to using persuasive, non-punitive measures to prevent illegal immigration from their shores, bind the U.S. government to repatriate Cubans intercepted at sea, and require the United States to award as many as 20,000 entry visas per year to Cubans.
The catalyst for the three components to U.S. policy on Cuban immigration is the automatic parole of Cubans who arrive illegally in the United States. Despite parole’s definition as “an extraordinary measure sparingly used to bring an otherwise inadmissible alien into the United States” it is practiced on a mostly automatic basis and provides instant access to a one-year pathway to LPR status through the CAA.10 The reality created through parole and standing U.S. policy is referred to as the “Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot” policy. It creates an environment that encourages Cubans to risk their lives, evade interdiction, arrive illegally on U.S. soil, and immediately self-report themselves to authorities. In addition, it encourages recidivism among the ranks of Cubans willing to risk their lives for high-stakes economic and social rewards, despite previous unsuccessful attempts.
Since the 1994/1995 Immigration Accords, and prior to President Obama’s December 2014 announcement, three policy changes occurred on each side of the Florida Strait: a U.S. lift on family travel and remittance restrictions, an extension of the U.S. B-2 visa’s (non-immigrant visa) validity period from six months to five years, and Cuba’s eradication of the mandatory exit permit for most citizens.11 Remittance cash flow to Cuba steadily increased after the 2009 lift on restrictions to $2.3 billion in 2012 and $2.6 billion in 2013.12 In addition, the U.S. State Department saw an 82 percent increase in the number of Cubans receiving non-immigrant B-2 Visas after the 2013 extension of the B-2 validity period to five years, issuing a total of 26,266 immigrant and non-immigrant visas in 2013.13 Also in 2013, Cuba eliminated an expensive exit permit requirement for most citizens to travel abroad and began allowing individuals to reside abroad for up to two years without risking the loss of their assets.14
While Cuba slowly liberalizes its domestic economy and policies, low-level dialogue with the United States grounded in the 1994/1995 accords has seen significant gains in recent years. On an annual basis, the United States has held formal talks with the Cuban government to outline procedures for the safe and orderly repatriation of migrants interdicted at sea back to Cuba. Capitalizing on these discussions, the two countries signed search-and-rescue operational procedures in June 2014 and have continued to engage in a multilateral technical-operating-procedures venue to govern the international response to an oil spill that could impact either side of the Florida Strait. The U.S. Coast Guard has also led two “professional exchanges” with their Cuban Border Guard counterparts to operationalize these formal discussions.15 While official diplomatic relations between the two countries are still in their infancy, these lower level engagements protect U.S. maritime equities in the Caribbean.
The United States isn’t the only Caribbean neighbor of Cuba to initiate talks to address the Cuban diaspora. In 2008, Cuba and Mexico signed a maritime agreement to address the influx of illegal Cuban immigration to the United States by way of the Yucatán Passage and overland Mexico.16 Similar to the 1994/1995 accords, the agreement aims to enhance cooperation between the two countries to encourage safe, legal, and orderly migration while combating transnational criminal organization activities engaged in human smuggling. While this agreement underscores the importance of a national dialogue to address the illegal-immigration issue, recent trends suggest it lacks enforcement. In 2013, a record 13,764 Cubans traveled through Mexico and presented themselves at the U.S. Southwest border.17 Officials believe as much as 40 percent of this flow is via maritime routes from Cuba’s southwestern-most province to the Yucatán Peninsula—exacerbating an already complex immigration challenge at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ways to Move Forward
U.S. policies encourage Cubans to make deadly tradeoffs to overcome the financial stagnation they suffer in their home country. While addressing the economic standoff with Cuba is presumably difficult in the short term, the United States can take measures immediately to discourage dangerous, illegal immigration by the sea. These actions strengthen existing maritime dialogue, eliminate the “Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot” policy, and discourage recidivism.
The United States must continue to engage the government of Cuba in operational-level dialogue on illegal immigration, narcotics trafficking, and search and rescue to address the Cuban diaspora and maintain influence in the region as Cuba’s economy slowly liberalizes. In just the past year, these enhanced efforts have helped the United States interdict a record number of Cubans, securing America’s borders and maintaining safety of life at sea. On a higher level, maintaining a steady, lower-level dialogue based on shared operational concerns will provide a gateway to address larger issues between the two nations in the future.
Although no one knows what Cuba’s future political model will look like, it is clear the country is thawing the sluggish economic policies that drive people from its shores. With the help of billions of dollars in foreign direct investment, Cuba’s Port of Mariel is transforming into the largest industrial port in the Caribbean.18 As the Panama Canal completes an overhaul to accommodate larger classes of ships and Nicaragua continues to aggressively pursue a canal of its own, Cuba has the geographic potential to become a major transshipment point for the Americas. Increased economic activity will escalate the demand for search-and-rescue and counter-narcotics activity in the maritime region surrounding Cuba as more ships frequent the area and stringent regime standards give way to a liberalized economy. The United States, Cuba, and Mexico’s dialogue regarding mutual maritime interests continue to address emerging matters in the region.
While the U.S.-Cuba relationship warms as diplomatic ties are reestablished, the United States can take actions now to reduce any future rise in illegal emigration from Cuba. To eliminate many of the pull incentives of illegal immigration, the United States can practice the legislative definition of parole. While repealing the CAA may prove difficult politically, using parole sparingly on a case-by-case basis will help to eliminate dry-foot incentives. Cubans may be less likely to take to the sea knowing that even if they make it to U.S. territory, they most likely will be repatriated.
The United States can reduce recidivist attempts at illegal immigration in the Florida Strait by collecting the biometric data of all Cubans interdicted at sea. This may reduce interdiction, adjudication, and repatriation burdens imposed on the U.S. assets that patrol these waters. In 2006, a successful 100 percent biometrics-at-sea collection program was enacted by the United States in the illegal immigration route between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Approximately 23 percent of those interdicted in this area were identified as recidivist entrants and prosecuted under U.S. law, resulting in a 75 percent decrease in observed illegal migrant flow in the immediate aftermath of the policy.19 Overlaying the 100 percent collection program in the Florida Strait may have an equally positive influence in reducing recidivism and deterring new go-fast and rustica illegal traffic. The expansion of the biometrics-at-sea policy may provide increased security for law-enforcement personnel as it provides the tools to identify dangerous convicted felons shortly after interdictions. Biometric collection will also help connect people with events at sea to provide more insight into sophisticated human-smuggling organizations.
In the long term, Cuba’s endemic economic woes and geographic proximity to the United States make dangerous, illegal immigration a natural action for many desiring a new life by the fastest means possible. However, by continuing operational-level dialogue with Cuba, eliminating the practice of automatic parole, and collecting biometric data from all people suspected of illegal entry into the United States, we could curb the flow of illegal Cuban immigration in lieu of larger, more difficult policy and legislative changes that may take place under comprehensive immigration reform.
1. RADM Wayne E. Justice, USCG, interview by House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Chairman, “Overview of Coast Guard Drug and Migrant Interdiction,” 18 March 2009.
2. Phone interview with CAPT Mark Defor, USCG, 16 December 2014.
3. YouTube, U.S. Coast Guard Anti-Smuggling Public Service Announcement, 17 June 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=apnwkCg-_YI.
4. Miriam Jordan and Arian Campo-Flores, “Cuban Wave Arrives by Land,” The Wall Street Journal, 28 October 2014, www.wsj.com/articles/cuban-wave-arrives-by-land-1414539408.
5. RADM Wayne E. Justice, USCG, interview by House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
6. Associated Press in Havana, “Cuban migrants flood to US by taking advantage of lax passport rules,” The Guardian, 10 October 2014, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/oct/10/cuba-migrants-surge-us-mexico-border-sea-travel.
7. Ruth Ellen Wasem, Cuban Migration to the United States: Policy and Trends, policy paper (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service), 2009.
9. U.S. State Department, press release on U.S.– Cuba Migration Talks, 17 June 2014, www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/01/219530.htm.
10. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate, “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952,” www.uscis.gov/laws/immigration-and-nationality-act.
11. U.S. Interests Section Havana Cuba, “Important Notice: Increase in B-2 Validity,” 20 June 2014, http://havana.usint.gov/visa_appointment_information.html.
12. Juan Carlos Chavez, “Remittances From Cubans Abroad Drive Island’s Economy,” The Miami Herald. 12 June 2013, www.miamiherald.com/2013/06/12/3448098/remittances-from-cubans-abroad.html.
13. Fox News Latino, “Cuban Receiving Non-Immigrant Visas, traveling to Miami Rises,” 19 June 2014, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2013/09/22/cuban-receiving-non-immigrant-visas-traveling-to-miami-rises.
14. Julia E. Sweig & Michael J. Bustamante. “Cuba After Communism.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 92, no. 4 (July/August 2013), www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139458/julia-e-sweig-and-michael-j-bustamante/cuba-after-communism.
15. CAPT Mark Fedor, USCG, telephone interview.
16. 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of Cuba and the Government of the United Mexican States to Ensure Legal Immigration Flow, http://diasporaydesarrollo.org/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=f31e57bf-6b67-445a-b86f-4e64c80403c6.
17. Mark P. Sullivan, Cuba: U.S. Policy and Issues for the 113th Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service), 29 January 2014.
18. Patricia Grogg, “Cuba Sees Its Future in Mariel Port, Hand in Hand with Brazil,” Interpress News Service Agency, 22 August 2014, www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/cuba-sees-its-future-in-mariel-port-hand-in-hand-with-brazil.
19. CAPT Mark Higgins, USCG, and LCDR Kim Fair, USCG, “Biometrics at Sea: Closing the Revolving Door,” Coast Guard Proceedings, vol. 66, no. 2 (Summer 2009), 79–85.