By Karen Lee Wald on January 28, 2017
Recently, The New York Times—in agreement with much other U.S. media and many politicians—published a long, teary article by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Frances Robles about the sufferings of a Cuban dental assistant who had endured great hardships as she passed through numerous South and Central American countries to get to the United States—only to arrive too late: Outgoing President Obama had just cut off the uniquely Cuban privilege of being allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa—and stay, with benefits.
It would be nice if the Times and other U.S. media showed the same awareness, sympathy and concern for the Mexicans, Haitians, Central Americans and others who land on U.S. shores “after arduous journeys,” who are regularly detained and deported, regardless of how extreme their situation in their home countries may be. Not to mention the many children who’ve wound up in prison-like detention centers or separated indefinitely from their families. In reaction to Trump’s draconian measures against other immigrants and would-be immigrants, the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) decried Donald Trump’s pursuit of building walls and shoring up border patrol as being cruel and inhuman, when:
“… in our own backyard, hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men are being forced to flee their homes due to horrific levels of violence, corruption, impunity, and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.”
There is an undeniable reality: If the Cuban dental assistant who spent weeks hiking through the Amazon had been Brazilian, this New York Times story wouldn’t even have been written.
To understand this, we have to look at what immigration lawyers and those providing refugee assistance refer to as “push” vs. “pull” immigration.
The whole reason Cubans arriving in the U.S. have been the unique exception to the law requiring would-be immigrants to have visas is the politically-inspired assumption that they were all classic examples of “push” type immigration— that they all desperately needed to escape the horrors of “the Castro regime.”
What horrors was the Times’ prototypical dental assistant fleeing? Davis and Robles mention “communism” and “extreme poverty.” Yet the Cuban woman could have escaped communism in any of the countries she passed through—and was unmotivated to remain in. One could argue that there is poverty—sometimes extreme poverty—in some of those countries, but then—why isn’t the U.S. government offering the same free entry plus benefits to the citizens of those countries?
If we’re talking about relative poverty, it’s worth noting that after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Cubans working on medical missions in Haiti described the pain of finding Haitians living in holes excavated beneath the ruins of their former shacks. People who, were it not for the Cuban and other internationalist medical workers, would have little hope of receiving medical care, or of being treated in a dental clinic, let alone receiving the training to work in one.
So let’s be frank: the poverty in Cuba can hardly be described as extreme (the dental assistant had a home to sell, after all, as well as her job). And while “living under communism” (Cuba didn’t claim this by the way; it claims only to be attempting to “build socialism”) may seem awful enough to some that it’s worth fleeing from, there have been and are far worse political systems in the world that the U.S. government didn’t bat an eyelash at—Pinochet’s Chile, Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haiti, Argentina during the “Dirty War” in the recent past, Saudi Arabia or Honduras in the present come to mind—much less offer free haven to their citizens/victims.
In contrast, Cuba’s political system tries to provide the best it can to everyone, despite massive economic difficulties, exacerbated for the last 50-plus years by economic warfare referred to as an “embargo” in Washington and as “the blockade” in Cuba. One of the main ongoing features of this system, in bad times as well as good, is its solidarity with the truly disadvantaged at home and abroad. The dental assistant may not have had as much food on her plate as she would have liked, but her plate was never empty. She just didn’t like having to share it.
“Push” Versus “Pull”
It wasn’t the risk of extreme mistreatment that drove the Cuban dental assistant out of her country (what immigration attorneys refer to as “push” migration) but rather the lure (often, but not always false) of what her hoped-for home in Miami had to offer her (“pull” migration).
“Push” migration is defined by an escape from life-threatening dangers, including war, drought, extreme hunger, genocide (ethnic, national, gender or racial) or extreme situations for women such as being sold as child brides or subject to genital mutilation. Push migration means that those escaping would be happy to settle anywhere, provided that those conditions could be avoided.
“Pull” migration is the opposite: those leaving their home countries want to go to one particular place, a place that they see as offering wonderful advantages. The “Land of Milk and Honey,” where the streets are paved with gold. In the minds of many throughout the world, that is the USA.
This is the crux of the issue. The reasoning behind the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), offering automatic entry and an almost immediate “green card” (permission to work) to those “escaping Castro” was the accepted conventional wisdom that life under Fidel Castro (and by extension, under anyone who followed his form of government) was so horrible that anyone fleeing that regime should be welcomed into the U.S. with open arms. No political asylum hearing required. In other words, the assumption behind the CAA is that emigration from Cuba to the U.S. is of the “push” variety. Cubans have to “flee” Cuba (as almost all U.S. media describe those who leave) to avoid the horrors that will befall them if they stay.
But Cubans heading for Florida’s shores aren’t just interested in getting out of Cuba; they want to get into the life they assume they will lead in Miami.
The Cuban Adjustment Act could best be described as picking up the “Chance” card in a Monopoly game that says: “Pass Go; Collect $200,” because it not only greatly speeds up the issuance of the coveted green card and initiation of citizenship proceedings, it also opens the door to additional benefits for Cubans while they are waiting. Not only do they not need to document their alleged persecution in a political asylum hearing, they also receive social welfare benefits. These include financial aid, free medical care, English lessons, temporary work permits and job placement.
It explains why some invaded the Peruvian embassy in Havana in 1981 in the hope of getting to Miami and rioted when they actually ended up in—Peru.
“Wet foot/dry foot,” was a policy invention of the Clinton era. It didn’t really alter the CAA once a Cuban arrived in the United States. It just let Bill Clinton take some of the onus off his admittance of tens of thousands of Cubans eager to get to the American Dreamland at a time (the 1990s), when the demise of Cuba’s Soviet and Eastern European trading partners (some would call them “Fair Trade” partners) left the country in a sudden, albeit temporary, economic shambles.
Wet foot/dry foot meant that now the extraordinary benefits of the CAA would only apply to those who actually set foot in the U.S.— with or without legal visas. Those picked up at sea were from then on sent back to Cuba (to languish in the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, without work but with food, housing and clothing—at least until their futures could be decided.)
That policy is still in effect. Cubans still get extreme benefits under the CAA if they can legally enter the U.S. (say, on a family visit) and stay on.
Unmentioned by Davis and Robles is the fact that the Cuban dental assistant and all the rest who did not manage to “Pass Go” in time are still miles ahead of all other U.S. immigrants. They can now either slip across the border undetected if they have no visa—like every other undocumented migrant—or promise to abide by the terms of their visa (should they receive one) and then change their mind once they enter the country. The green card still awaits, no matter what.
The “medical parole” measure Obama just dropped—and Trump said he would renew—is even more mean-spirited than the Cuban Adjustment Act, which has been blamed for luring tens of thousands of Cubans to their deaths in the Florida Straits. This Bush-era measure added to the enticement of the CAA a specific call for Cuban doctors, those who were providing the only medical care available in poor nations or impoverished sections of more well-off nations, to abandon their posts and practice medicine in the U.S. instead. Given Trump’s demonstrated lack of moral values, it is not surprising that he would reinstitute such a policy.
Only Congress can revoke the Cuban Adjustment Act, having passed it in the first place. President Obama’s elimination of the policy that allowed Cubans who passed through—but declined to remain in—multiple countries on their road north was a tacit acknowledgment of its senseless and arbitrary nature. Since citizens of the Central and South American countries that Cubans pass through on their way to the “promised land” of Miami are not afforded the same enticements and benefits as Cubans, we can assume Congress feels there is no need for people in those pathway countries to flee north. Therefore any one of those countries would have provided adequate shelter for the “fleeing” Cubans if the nature of their migration had truly been “push” rather than “pull.” They could have settled anywhere and been free of the dual threats of “communism” and “extreme poverty.”
But that is not their true objective, any more than U.S. policy is about helping the needy. The real objective is to paint Cuban socialism as a failure, a policy in which The New York Times is happily complicit.