The Lessons We Can Learn From Our Country's Cuban Refugee Policy

We would have much preferred that this administration, and its predecessors for that matter, would have afforded greater generosity to all groups fleeing political persecution, civil war and extreme violence instead of closing off avenues for Cubans.
01/14/2017 08:24 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2018
Cuban migrants demonstrate demanding to be allowed to travel to the United States in thee Turbo municipality, Antioquia depar
Cuban migrants demonstrate demanding to be allowed to travel to the United States in thee Turbo municipality, Antioquia department, Colombia on August 5, 2016. More than 2.000 Cuban migrants are in the country after Panama closed the border with Colombia last May 9 to stop the flow of mainly Cuban migrants in a desperate bid to reach the United States / AFP / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The policy of "wet foot, dry foot" that President Obama ended late this week was a variation of the special status provided to Cubans fleeing that nation by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Along with the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, these policies gave millions of Cubans a head start on legal permanent residence and a path to U.S. citizenship.

By any and every measure, those who fled Castro's Cuba -- as well as their descendants--have made enormous contributions to this country. Through hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, Cuban Americans revitalized South Florida, helping transform what had been a struggling region into a dynamic bridge to Latin America. And Cuban Americans have made their mark at the highest echelons of business, the arts, sports, education and government.

Cuban Americans, later joined by numerous other Latino subgroups, have also given us a glimpse into our nation's future. While the process of demographic change is never easy, they've demonstrated that increased diversity need not be a zero-sum game, that the advancement of one group can be part of a rising tide lifting all boats. In that sense, the generosity extended to those fleeing the Castro regime has served our country as well.

At the same time, far too often our nation has failed to extend this generosity to other similarly situated groups, such as Haitians fleeing corrupt and dictatorial regimes and natural disasters, or Central Americans leaving countries wrecked by civil war, political persecution, and extreme violence. While it is true that our country cannot accept everyone seeking to enter from abroad, it is also true that we should always pursue the highest degree of fairness possible.

Most Americans would agree that no one seeking to become an "American by choice" -- whether as a refugee fleeing persecution, a legal immigrant reuniting with family members, or an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States as a child -- should be excluded from this precious opportunity based on their race, religion, or country of origin. If that is true, the converse is also true -- that certain newcomers should not be given easier access solely due to these characteristics.

We would have much preferred that this administration, and its predecessors for that matter, would have afforded greater generosity to all groups fleeing political persecution, civil war and extreme violence instead of closing off avenues for Cubans.

As a new administration that has expressed hostility to immigrants is poised to begin, we hope it recognizes two clear lessons from the more than five decades of generosity our country has shown to Cubans. First, the wise exercise of presidential discretion in immigration -- initiated by President Eisenhower with Cubans -- can result in enormous benefits to all Americans.
 
Second, the dire predictions that Cuban refugees -- or DREAMers or any other group of immigrants -- threatened our nation's economy, security, or values have been proven false, again and again. The next administration would do well to heed those lessons as it considers its own options.