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Gretchen Sierra-Zorita

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A Tale of Two Dreams

Posted: 04/20/2012 3:50 pm

While North Miami high school valedictorian Daniela Pelaez was fighting deportation orders last month, Cuban soccer player Yosmel de Armas was planning to defect in Nashville, Tenn. Pelaez, who moved from Colombia when she was 4, received a two-year deportation reprieve and is fighting to stay. De Armas turned up in Miami seeking asylum and is expected to become a U.S. citizen.

Cubans landing on U.S. soil are typically granted asylum and can apply for legal residence in one year. Once they have green cards, they can apply for U.S. citizenship, which will be granted in five years' time. This is the only nationality that has an automatic pathway to citizenship upon entering the U.S.

This policy shares many characteristics with the proposed Dream Act, denounced by Republicans as an amnesty bill. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and senior Republicans are crafting an alternative proposal that will improve the GOP's dismal ratings among Hispanic voters. As they move forward, they should consider the parallels that exist between U.S.-Cuba migration policy, which the GOP fully supports, and the Dream Act, as well as the expectation that all immigrant groups be treated with parity.

U.S.-Cuba migration policy is based on the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) which granted permanent residence to roughly 300,000 Cuban refugees after Fidel Castro took over in 1959. This law ultimately enabled Cubans to become citizens.

The CAA was an appropriate Cold War response to the communist takeover of Cuba. It would have been inhumane and impractical to repatriate Cubans or to marginalize them socially and economically by suspending them in a legal limbo. The same rationale applies to Dream Act beneficiaries who have no ties to the countries they left behind.

The Dream Act would create a path to citizenship for non-Cubans like Pelaez who were brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents before the age of 16, if they attend college or serve in the military for two years. Individuals who meet the Act's requirements could attain citizenship in nine to 11 years.

Opponents of the Dream Act contend that it rewards criminal behavior and would argue that Cubans did not break U.S. laws. That is true, but neither did the beneficiaries of the Dream Act unless they are deemed accountable for the crimes of their parents.

Opponents claim that the Dream Act would incentivize migration because its beneficiaries would sponsor family members. This is correct, but it would be a protracted process. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, the wait time for a U.S. citizen to sponsor a Mexican sibling for permanent residency is 15 years.

If the CAA were being considered for passage today, critics of the Dream Act would oppose it as an immigration magnet. The lure of U.S. citizenship, along with the political freedom and economic opportunity it conveys, has spurred countless Cubans to migrate. The high points of this exodus were the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and the 1994 Balseros Crisis, when over 160,000 Cubans risked their lives crossing the Florida Straits. To preempt perilous mass migrations in the future, the U.S. government began in 1994 to return Cubans intercepted at sea back to Cuba or a third country.

Senator Marco Rubio's proposal (not yet public) is said to provide non-immigrant visas to young individuals so that they can complete their studies and work afterwards. They could apply for citizenship but would not receive preferential treatment.

Their wait would be long. About 60 percent of Dream Act beneficiaries are Mexican immigrants. Of all nationalities, Mexicans have the longest wait time for green cards because the demand greatly exceeds the country's quota.

Senator Marcos's unveiled plan would legalize the status of undocumented youth and enable them to gain an economic foothold. It is a step forward, but it is not enough, and as a Cuban-American, he should know.

The immigration system is broken, and the Dream Act is an important part of the solution. Given the proven contributions of the Cuban-American community to this country, it would be unwise and unfair to deny non-Cuban undocumented youth the same advantages and opportunities for success afforded to Cubans through their American citizenship.

 
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