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Cuban-American commissioner from Miami-Dade calls for ending immigration privileges for Cubans


A Miami-Dade County politician has quietly taken on the fight against a federal law — once seen as untouchable — that gives Cubans special immigration privileges.

County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro filed legislation urging Congress to do away with the preference provided to Cuban migrants under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to apply for residency 366 days after their arrival in the U.S. — a perk afforded no other foreigners. The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal next Wednesday. Six of its 13 members, including Barreiro, are Cuban-American.

Local government has no power to overturn U.S. law. But last month’s announcement by President Barack Obama that he would seek to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations has renewed interest on U.S. policy toward the island — and raised questions as to whether the CAA, designed to help Cubans fleeing political persecution, would still make sense under closer diplomatic ties. Changes to the CAA would require congressional action.

Barreiro, 49, said in a telephone interview from Mexico on Wednesday that though his own family has benefited from the law -- he is the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants -- it's time for it to expire.

"This thing, that you come over and you're a resident in a year and a day and after that you go back to Cuba -- it's ridiculous," he said. "It's helping the regime."

He conceded his proposal could be contentious, given that many Cuban migrants rely on the CAA to find a better life away from the island's communist regime. But Barreiro said those people would still be able to apply for political asylum like other foreigners.

Barreiro is registered Republican, though his commission seat is nonpartisan. His District 5 includes downtown, South Beach, Little Havana and portions of the Miami River.

Critics have long noted that Cubans are the only immigrants who are not sent back to their country when they reach the U.S. illegally — special treatment that migrants from Haiti and elsewhere from the Caribbean do not receive when they arrive on battered rafts to Florida’s shores. Separate from the CAA, a policy known as “wet-foot, dry-foot” allows Cuban rafters to stay if they reach U.S. soil, though they’re deported if interdicted at sea.

Cuban-American politicians as prominent as Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio began arguing years ago that the CAA has been abused by so-called economic refugees who use the law to obtain legal status only to then return quickly (and frequently) to the island. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a report last week finding that criminals stole $2 billion from the U.S. in part by abusing the law.

Rubio speculated in a news conference earlier this month that there would be efforts to repeal the law in the wake of Obama’s new policy. Fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told el Nuevo Herald last week that the CAA would have to figure into lawmakers’ debate as Washington engages Havana.

“The President’s egregious concessions to the Castro regime clearly put the future of the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act in jeopardy,” Diaz-Balart said.

On the campaign trail last year, new Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo endorsed tightening the CAA to apply only to victims of political persecution. His Democratic opponent, then-Rep. Joe Garcia, countered that the law would not survive a debate to reform it — arguing that any effort to amend the CAA would result in it going away entirely. Garcia also suggested it would be unfair for older Cuban immigrants who have benefited from the law to close the door to new arrivals.

Garcia’s predecessor, Republican David Rivera, had filed short-lived legislation to sanction Cubans who used the law to obtain legal status but then traveled to the island before obtaining U.S. citizenship, which usually takes five years.

Since Obama announced his Cuba policy shift Dec. 17, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of Cuban migrants landing on U.S. beaches, according to the Coast Guard.

This post has been updated with Barreiro's comments.