The U.S. Embassy in Havana announced recently that it would restore some visa processing that had been suspended because of “sonic attack” and Covid concerns. However, instead of increasing consular staff and ramping up migrant processing, Washington should move to terminate the unprecedented migrant program that provides 20,000 Cuban admissions yearly into the United States. No other country receives such a privileged immigration quota, which started more than 25 years ago as part of an agreement between the Clinton administration and the Castro regime, and today is known as the “Cuban Family Reunification Parole” program. Resuming this extraordinary migrant quota undercuts normal U.S. immigration law and indirectly supports the Communist dictatorship in Havana, as tens of thousands of Cubans who might otherwise stay to fight for the democratization and opening up of their country instead see their future in the United States.
The story begins back in 1980 when Castro orchestrated the Mariel “boatlift”, allowing 125,000 Cubans to flee to the United States. For most Americans, the resulting migratory chaos was another example of the Carter administration’s foreign affairs ineptness and Castro’s slyness in handling Washington. For Castro, the Mariel operation was about getting disaffected and regime-hostile Cubans off the island, a tactic he had used from the beginning of his Communist revolution: dispossessing and driving off dissidents, opponents, and large segments of the Cuban middle and upper classes. For good measure, Castro also cleared out Cuban prisons and mental institutions during the boatlift, with estimates of over 10 percent of all Marielitos having a criminal past.
By the early 1990s, in the wake of the collapsing USSR and Soviet bloc, Cuba found itself in economic ruin, and a struggling Castro faced riots and upheaval as enraged Cubans demanded life’s basic necessities and political change. Scrambling, the Cuban dictator reprised a version of the Mariel plan, pulling back his border guards and permitting Cubans to take to homemade rafts on a dangerous one-way trip to the United States through shark-infested waters. In 1994, more than 35,000 balseros (rafters) went to sea and countless more were preparing to do so.
In response, President Clinton ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to begin transferring intercepted rafters to the U.S. military base in Guantanamo because Cuban authorities would not accept their return. Clinton was determined not to let another Cuban mass exodus undermine his second-term re-election bid (he had lost his 1980 re-election bid as Arkansas governor in part due to rioting of Marielitos imprisoned in the state), so he was willing to negotiate to end the rafter crisis. Committed to a survival strategy of moving regime opponents off the island, Castro agreed to enter into talks with Washington. The Cuban dictator had his negotiators focus on extracting one important U.S. concession he had long sought: a special and large migration quota for Cubans. With such a quota firmly in place, Castro would make sure regime opponents focused on leaving, not on changing Cuba’s broken political system.
At the end of the deal-making, known as the 1994-95 migration accords, Clinton agreed to authorize annually “at least 20,000” Cuban migrants (Castro had asked for 30,000), processed for admission by U.S. diplomats in Havana who would conduct a country-wide “special visa lottery”, open to all Cubans. Both sides also agreed to put in place the “wet foot – dry foot” policy, which meant the U.S. Coast Guard could return rafters intercepted at sea directly to Cuba, while those who reached Gringolandia could stay in the United States. U.S. negotiators emphasized that the new arrangement would discourage dangerous rafting, and they accepted Fidel’s demand for an exceptionally high migrant quota as the cost of this Faustian bargain.
For the dictatorship, the Cubans who wanted to depart were gusanos (worms), as Castro called them. He cared not a whit if they perished at sea; he just cynically wanted them gone. Castro officials understood that for millions of disaffected Cubans, going to sea in a leaky raft was a very desperate option, but winning a visa lottery and hoping to become one of the yearly 20,000 was a real opportunity. With Washington’s guaranteed quota, the regime would get a new safety valve. Some U.S. observers accepted the deal as a temporary arrangement, and one that, after all, helped people flee tyranny for freedom. In fact, however, the agreement also helped stabilize a tottering dictatorship, and 25 years later continues to do so.
President Clinton used narrow authority in the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) to “parole” the migrants into the U.S. to reach the 20,000 quota. Under the INA, Cubans would have received at most only a few thousand legal immigrant visas, processed under family reunification numbers (and under the deal all “immediate relative” immigrant visas for Cubans were in addition to and not counted toward the 20,000). But the INA (Section 212(d)(5)) also authorizes a loophole so foreigners can be granted “parole” admission into the U.S. for extraordinary humanitarian reasons when a regular visa is not an option. Parole is supposed to be used only in very special individual circumstances (for example, when a foreigner seeks special medical care or hopes to visit a dying relative), but Clinton, by fiat, transformed the exception into a privileged immigration category to admit large numbers of Cubans.
While parole authority historically has been used in emergency and temporary situations (for example in managing Haitian migrants), Clinton’s Cuban quota has become a permanent fixture and terrible precedent for U.S. border security. Instead of taking hard decisions to actually defend our borders and turn back illegal migrants, presidents can use the parole option simply to “legalize” the problem. Currently, the Biden administration is exploding parole authority on our southern border with Mexico, where the Department of Homeland Security is paroling into the United States tens of thousands of illegal migrants. DHS leadership is not being transparent about the legality of this maneuver, nor about the numbers of paroles it is authorizing (presumably to almost any foreigner who shows up). A new Congress needs to move quickly to redress this abuse.
Back to Cuba. After the migration deal, the State Department posted me in 1995 as part of the consular team that focused on migrants and returned rafters. I served in the U.S. Interests Section (USINT), which was our de facto embassy (that Castro had allowed to open in 1977 in a deal with President Carter). The only reason the Cuban government tolerated U.S. officials on the ground in Havana was precisely to process migrants out of the country. Through the state-run media, Cuban authorities advertised el sorteo (the lottery) to the public. It was a huge activity, known everywhere on the island. Cubans could mail in or drop off applications at USINT, providing their name, address, and identity number written on a sheet of paper. Very quickly, envelopes in the tens of thousands overwhelmed the USINT mail. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (this was still pre-DHS) took charge of computerizing the entries and randomly making selections. INS notified selectees they could apply for processing.
The State Department and INS agreed to process the selectees as if they were immigrant visa cases. That meant that the applicant/selectee (plus immediate family members) came to USINT to interview and demonstrate they could meet immigrant visa qualifications. State consular officers conducted the interviews, examining the normal immigrant visa paperwork: birth, identity, educational and career documents; affidavits of support from the U.S.; police records; and medical examinations. Consular officers generally approved most selectee/applicants (there was subtle pressure to reach the 20,000 quota), after which INS officers did a paper file review, normally rubberstamping the decision. Just like that, the INA’s numerical restrictions on migrants were bypassed.
In 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, DHS first formally institutionalized the process by announcing the “Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program” (CFRP), which started (unlawfully) speeding up the validity dates of family-based immigrant petitions as a way to reach the 20,000 quota. Speeding up petition validity dates allowed DHS to pivot away from drawing “winners” from the Cuban special lottery. The Cuban dictatorship had always hated the publicity needed to conduct the lottery, but accepted it as part of the price of getting the special quota. The CFRP even removed that inconvenience for Castro. DHS explained: “Under the CFRP Program, USCIS may exercise its discretionary parole authority to permit eligible Cuban nationals to come to the United States to rejoin their family members.” CFRP continued even after the Obama administration renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014. Only in 2017, when “sonic attack” concerns in Havana caused Washington to reduce embassy staff, has processing the quota ever been interrupted. The question now is: Will the Biden administration restore processing this unlawful quota?
During my three years of living and working in Cuba, I spoke to thousands of Cubans all across the country — e.g., returned rafters, visa applicants, regime opponents, principled anti-Communists, and shameless opportunists — all representatives of normal humanity understandably united in their desire to abandon “the Revolution” for a better life. Some wanted to topple the regime; most wanted just to leave. The demand to exit Cuba seemed inexhaustible. Experts labelled the vast majority of these disaffected Cubans “economic migrants”; yes, they were, but that does not tell the whole story. The point at which a person who seeks a better life abroad can be distinguished from a political dissident is always hard to determine, particularly in a police state like Communist Cuba. One thing was clear to me: These people were vital actors needed to force political change, but instead the lure of the lottery pushed most of them to see instead their future in the United States. At the same time, almost nothing was as important to the Castro dictatorship as keeping the diplomatic machinery in place to process the 20,000 annual quota. The regime knew in the 1990s, and it knows today, how to defend its vital self-interests.
There is of course an understandable human dilemma in the choice between fleeing for liberty and staying to fight for liberty. Standing up to the Cuban dictatorship’s ruthless repression then and now is difficult and dangerous. Some U.S. policymakers dealing with Cuba, particularly Cuban-American leaders in South Florida, may resist ending the quota. Understandably torn between furthering efforts that undermine the Havana dictatorship versus expanding ways to get family off the island, Cuban-Americans should nevertheless recognize that implementing the 20,000 annual quota has fundamentally served the survival strategy of the regime. During the past 25 years, approximately 400,000 Cubans, many young and ambitious, departed the island under this program. We can only speculate on the positive effect those people, had they remained, would have had on democratizing and finally upending the brutal dictatorship.
Today the Cuban regime, no surprise, continues to call for full processing of the quota. It is the same phony humanitarian and blackmail package that the Castro brothers used, arguing insincerely that without the special quota rafters will die at sea and another mass exodus could be unleashed. But times have changed: There are now formal diplomatic ties, Fidel Castro is dead, and illegal migrants intercepted at sea can be returned. The regime has only tired arguments that blame U.S. policies and the embargo to mask the dictatorship’s shortcomings.
Washington should take steps to end this backdoor and misguided migration pipeline (including terminating parolee processing for Cubans in third countries, mainly carried out in the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana). To be sure, addressing the complete Cuban migratory legal situation remains a political Gordian knot (complicated by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act), but let’s start by terminating the 20,000 migrant quota, a step easily within our reach.