Cuban Migrants and the Legal/Illegal Immigrant Divide

The traditional notion of immigration to the U.S. is that of European immigration and assimilation; essentially, U.S. history views European migrants as the prototypical migrant.[1] This is in sharp contrast to migrants from other countries, who due to the criminalization and racialization of immigration are perceived to be illegal. Historically, non-European migrants were excluded from the narrative of “valid” immigrants through the passage of the explicitly racist immigration laws, notably the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the quota system of the Immigration Act of 1921. Although quotas were official abolished with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, immigration policy continues to be implicitly biased in a way that frames certain migrants, particularly Latin American migrants, as illegal and undeserving migrants; this opposes and reinforces the traditional view of “real” and “deserving” immigrants as European. One notable exception to this, though, have been Cuban migrants. Due to the highly-politicized remnants of the Cold War, Cubans have been treated as anomalies to the legal/illegal immigrant divide for decades, both by the U.S. and by other Central American countries.

Modern immigration policy between the United States and Cuba originated with the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 (CAA), which enabled Cuban immigrants to declare political asylum without having to prove refugee status.[2] The CAA permitted any Cuban who touched ground in the United States to naturalize immediately, allowing individuals to circumvent the complicated quota and visa system applicable to migrants from all other countries.[3] In the context of the Cold War, there were numerous explicit and implicit reasons for the U.S. government to make such a bold political move. Not only would opening U.S. borders provide safe haven for victims of persecution, but it would also reduce administrative burdens that had grown with the rapid increase of migrants fleeing Cuba. Additionally, in the throes of the fight against communism, the U.S. was sending a message to communists across the world that thousands of immigrants were seeking refuge in a democratic government.[4] In this way, the CAA acted as a legislative act of anti-communist propaganda and created a special status for Cubans. While Cubans were given a special status that ushered them through an open door, all other immigrants, particularly those from U.S.-supported governments, had to prove a well-founded, individual fear of political persecution.[5]

The CAA remained the prevalent policy that regulated Cuban immigration until the 1994 Balsero Crisis, when dozens of individuals stormed embassies and diplomatic residencies in Havana, demanding asylum and protesting the impoverished living conditions.[6] The Cuban government identified U.S. foreign policy as playing an integral role in inciting the riot, particularly the economic embargo between both countries, the CAA’s open door policy, the restricted number of legal applications for asylum, and anti-Cuban propaganda.[7] In response, Cuban leader Fidel Castro gave orders not to discourage emigration, leading the U.S. to tighten its economic embargo and causing tens of thousands of Cubans to flee for the United States via the sea. However, rather than being received into the U.S. as expected, Cuban migrants were transported and detained at Guantanamo Bay.[8] On May 2, 1995, the Clinton Administration announced a resolution of the Balsero Crisis that would solve the immediate migration crisis created by the 28,000 Cubans detained at Guantanamo Bay, implement a control mechanism for preventing future waves of Cuban migrants seeking asylum, and continue opposition against Fidel Castro by upholding economic and political initiatives.[9] Additionally, Castro agreed to discourage future mass emigration while the U.S. agreed to eliminate the CAA’s open door policy. The CAA was replaced by a new policy, dubbed the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy”, that allowed for the interception and repatriation of Cuban immigrants at sea. However, those migrants who reached U.S. soil were still allowed to remain.[10]

Although a considerable restriction on Cuban migration considering the prior CAA policy, the Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy was much more generous than the treatment of other migrants from Latin America. A notable comparison can be made using the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) that was passed in 1996, only two years after the Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy. In contrast to the recognition of undocumented Cuban migrants as needing asylum from dire economic and political situations (albeit recognized for politically motivated reasons), the IIRIRA framed undocumented immigration from other countries as a strategy for migrants to live off public programs for free.[11] Unlike Cuban migrants, who received the benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, migrants under the IIRIRA were restricted from numerous social programs and even academic benefits with states being prevented from offering in-state tuition for undocumented students attending public institutions.[12] When viewing U.S. policy towards undocumented migrants as a whole, it is evident that Cuban migrants not only received preferential treatment, but that they also represented a departure from how other Latin American migrants are treated. Rather, the special handling of Cuban migrants acts as an anomaly from the typical legal/illegal immigrant divide. This has raised tensions among Central American migrants, many of whom resent the assistance and friendly reception given to Cubans but denied to others fleeing similar situations.[13]

Latin American countries have also reinforced this divide through their treatment of Cuban migrants. In January 2013, when Cuba relaxed travel restrictions for its citizens, and in December 2014, when Obama announced rapprochement with Cuba, thousands of Cuban migrants began traveling to the U.S. compelled by the fear that thawing relations between both countries would end favorable U.S. immigration policies. In 2015, the number of undocumented Cubans arriving in the U.S. nearly doubled from 24,278 in 2014 to 43,159 in 2015.[14] Rather than traveling by sea to the East Coast, the route traditionally taken, migrants began traveling through Latin America; many migrants began their journey in Ecuador, due to the country’s no-visa policy that allowed individuals to travel in and out of the country freely.[15] Although Latin American countries began closing their borders as the influx of migrants increased, Cubans still received an extraordinary amount of aid that was denied to others, with Mexico and Central American countries agreeing to help thousands of Cuban migrants stranded on their way to the U.S. When Costa Rica closed its border, Panama airlifted 3,800 migrants to Juárez, Mexico; when Panama closed its borders to Cubans without visas, it ended up waiving immigration restrictions for over 800 migrants, including many Cubans; when Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica, Costa Rica airlifted the majority of Cuban migrants to El Salvador and Mexico.[16] Additionally, El Salvador bused Cubans to Mexico; and Mexico granted Cubans a 20-day visa to facilitate their safe passage to the U.S.[17]

This is in sharp contrast to the treatment of Central American migrants, who travel through Guatemala and Mexico to reach the United States. Without the help of governments, migrants travel hundreds of miles, battling state corruption and gang violence and forcing their way through untraveled and unsafe jungles. This comparison by no means detracts from the situations of Cuban migrants, many of whom face similar situations and experience extreme hardship on their journey to a better life.[18] However, contrasting the government assistance provided to Cuban migrants and the lack of support provided to other migrants effectively highlights the ways in which Cubans are treated as anomalies to the traditional narrative of who is considered a “true” and “deserving” immigrant, and who are afforded certain benefits as a result of that status.

However, this treatment was reversed in January 2017, when President Obama terminated the Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy.[19] In an effort to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Obama revoked the status of Cuban migrants as political exceptions to immigration policy, stating that “effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities”.[20] Upon this policy dissolution, Cuban migrants have lost their status as anomalies to the legal/illegal immigrant divide, and are now treated just like all other migrants – like all other Latin American immigrants, that is. As a result of the revocation of the Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy not only has Cuban migrant been criminalized, but the legal/illegal immigrant divide has been reinforced. Almost immediately after Obama’s announcement, the U.S. and Central American countries began deporting Cuban migrants, and even denying Cuban migrants seeking asylum.[21] That same month, the Mexican government announced its intentions to instruct the INM to return Cubans stranded along the U.S.-Mexico to Cuba; 90 Cuban migrants along Mexico’s southern border were also repatriated. [22], [23] Once receiving special treatment, Cuban migrants are now being treated like the majority of migrants traveling through Mexico, subject to the militarization of southern Mexico and the uncertainty and possible violence when encountering INM agents and other state actors.

Through the reinforcement of the legal/illegal immigrant divide, the U.S. also exacerbates the current humanitarian crisis in Mexico and Central America that has resulted in the violation of human rights for tens of thousands of migrants. When combined with the lack of international protection for undocumented migrants, this also indicates that the U.S. lacks the political will to extend protection to Latin American migrants. By using Cuban migrants as an exception to and then a fortification of the legal/illegal immigrant divide, the U.S. only feeds into nationalistic “othering” of Latin American migrants and upholds the false notion that excluding Latin American migrants is to protect American citizens.


[1] Goodman, Adam. “Nation of Migrants, Historians of Migration.” Journal of American Ethnic History 34, no. 4 (2015): 7-18.

[2] Pérez, Alberto J. “Wet Foot, Dry Foot, No Foot: The Recurring Controversy Between Cubans, Haitians, and the United States Immigration Policy.” Nova Law Review 28 (2004): 437-65.

[3] Ibid, 442.

[4] Pérez, 444.

[5] Nackerud, Larry, Alyson Springer, Christopher Larrison, and Alicia Issac. “The End of the Cuban Contradiction in U.S. Refugee Policy.” International Migration Review 33, no. 1 (1999): 176-92.

[6] Ibid, 177.

[7] Ibid, 178.

[8] Ibid, 178.

[9] Ibid, 180.

[10] Pérez, 450.

[11] Newton, Lina. Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Preston, Julia. “Tension Simmers as Cubans Breeze Across U.S. Border.” New York Times. February 12, 2016.

[14] Miroff, Nick. “The other migrant crisis: Cubans are streaming north in large numbers.” The Washington Post. December 5, 2015.

[15] Fleischner, Nicki, and Elizabeth Gonzalez. “Infographic: Mapping Cubans’ Migration through the Americas.” AS/COA. August 17, 2016.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] De Dios García Davish, Juan. “Cubanos demandarán a la SSyPC y al INM por daños y golpes – Quadratín.” Quadratin Chiapas. March 13, 2017.

[19] Robles, Julie. “Obama Ends Exemption For Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas”. New York Times. January 12, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Chardy, Alfonso. “Border guards accused of illegally turning away foreigners seeking asylum.” Miama Herald. May 21, 2017.

[22] “Mexico Deportara a Cubanos.” La Red de Altamira. January 17, 2017.

[23] Jervis, Rick. “Mexico deports Cubans; first time since wet foot/dry foot repealed.” USA Today. January 20, 2017.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s