Deportations for Visiting Cuba?

June 1, 2012

It must be “Kick the Weak Week” in the U.S. Congress.

How else could one explain why Representative David Rivera’s bill, to rescind the residency status of Cubans living in the U.S. if they visit the island, could receive the dignity of a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Enforcement Policy?

This is a uniquely bad piece of legislation.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and can request residency a year after their arrival.  Following this period, they qualify for the liberty –denied almost all U.S. citizens— to visit Cuba freely under the rights restored by President Obama for unlimited family travel.

Rivera – like other hardliners – opposes all travel by anyone to Cuba and has tried various tactics in recent years to stop Cuban Americans from visiting the island.  Last August, he introduced legislation to revoke the residency status of any Cuban who returns to Cuba after receiving political asylum and residency in the United States.

As Rivera unapologetically describes it, “My legislation simply says that any Cuban national who receives political asylum and residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and travels to Cuba while still a resident, will have their residency status revoked.”

This sets up a horrible choice for these Cubans living in the U.S.  As Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group explained to the Subcommittee, it would “force all Cuban immigrants who want to maintain stable legal status in the United States to give up visiting family in Cuba.”

The group Rivera is targeting is significant.   About 400,000 family visits take place each year.  As Alvaro Fernandez reported in Progreso Weekly, “I asked one of the executives who charters flights to Cuba what percentage of persons would be affected by H.R. 2831. His answer was a startling almost 50% of persons who travel to Cuba are not yet U.S. citizens.”

What is the justification for a law that would stop hundreds of thousands of Cubans from physically being in contact with members of their family in Cuba?

Rivera and his allies make a series of claims that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused and they are trying to save it by stopping Cubans living in the U.S. from visiting Cuba.

In his testimony, Rivera said “Increasingly, Cuban-Americans are citing family reunification to justify travel that in reality more closely resembles common tourism and other unauthorized travel involving everything from plastic surgery to fifteens parties and weddings, to even sexual tourism.”

He went on to claim “In many cases, those Cubans traveling are also recipients of U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and cash assistance.  In these cases, U.S. taxpayers are actually subsidizing travel to a country that has been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC advised the Subcommittee in his testimony that some of these individuals were committing immigration fraud saying that Cubans who returned to the island to visit their families could not have come to the U.S. as legitimate refugees from oppression.

This is not about protecting the Cuban Adjustment Act.  It’s not in any danger of repeal.  Nor is this about subsidizing travel to Cuba with Social Security funds; of course, naturalized Cuban-Americans can use their benefits to pay for Cuba travel anytime.  It will come as no surprise that Congressman Rivera himself on his webpage offers to help any senior citizen in his district to determine their Medicare eligibility, and never once refers to this program as “welfare.”

No.  This is a travel ban.  It is simply another backdoor attempt to stop people, any people, from traveling to Cuba.  The targets in this round are entirely vulnerable:  migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.  By definition, they’re not registered voters and they’re mostly powerless, so it’s pretty easy to kick the weak, call them welfare recipients and fraudsters, and threaten them with deportation for the simple and decent act of trying to visit their families.

It’s a travel ban using a pretty heavy stick.  As Rep. Lofgren said, it “turns the act of travel to Cuba into a deportable offense.” She added:

No matter what the reason for stepping foot in Cuba, you lose your status. If you go to visit family members you haven’t seen in years, you lose your status. If you go to attend a funeral or donate a kidney to a dying relative, you lose your status. If you go to meet with Cuban dissidents with the aim of transitioning Cuba to a democracy, you lose your status.

Fortunately, Rep. Lofgren was not alone in her opposition to the bill.  Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, expressed particularly powerful views in his testimony before the panel.   Working the case from the outside were members of CAFÉ, the newly formed Cuban American organization, which wrote the Subcommittee and urged them to defeat the bill.  Progreso Weekly has issued an action alert urging opponents to make their views known to policy makers as well.  Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas protested the bill in an interview with EFE.  Anya Landau French editorialized against it in the Havana Note.

Ideally, these efforts and others like them will prevent the bill from being enacted.  The legislation is unjust, its aim is to divide families, it is using strong-armed tactics against a weak population that is unrepresented in the U.S. Congress, and it won’t realize its goal – to stop travel and thereby undermine the Cuban system.   But that won’t stop the hardliners from trying.

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