Have you ever met a Cuban at NYU? Perhaps you know someone of Cuban decent, but meeting a student who grew up in Cuba remains almost as unlikely as meeting one from North Korea. This is mainly due to the formerly restrictive immigration policies of the Cuban government, which rendered traveling outside the island virtually forbidden without government approval.
In recent months, the Cuban government unveiled its biggest immigration reforms of the past 50 years. The new measures, which took effect Jan. 14, included extending the period of time Cubans can visit other countries and easing restrictions on Cuban émigrés’ returns to the island. The most significant difference is the abolition of the Cuban exit visa. This travel document posed a serious barrier for Cubans wishing to leave the island. Not only did it cost a substantial amount of money, but the government could withhold it from anyone they wished. In practical terms, it also resulted in large numbers of Cubans attempting to immigrate illegally. Over the years, Cubans discovered many escape routes, some of which included taking rafts through the dangerous Florida Straits, or even shipping themselves by mail service. Needless to say, thousands have died trying to escape the Cuban regime, which makes immigration reform all the more imperative to address.
Not surprisingly, this shift in policy has resulted in widespread optimism from the U.S. media. Most journalists have viewed this move as a step toward Cuba’s liberalization and perhaps democracy. They couple these immigration reforms with recent efforts to liberalize the economy and see a positive trend which leads to freedom for Cubans. Most of the articles written on the subject fail to consider the possible implications behind this new immigration policy.
The most overlooked aspect is the possible response from the U.S. government. The United States has a set of laws in place which give Cuban immigrants political asylum and a fast track to citizenship. Cubans have profited from these laws since they were created in the 1960s as a response to Cuba’s oppressive regime. It follows logically that easing Cuba’s travel restrictions would result in a tightening of U.S. laws with regard to Cuban immigration. In essence, Cuba’s shift in policy could result in fewer opportunities for Cubans who wish to leave the island if they no longer enjoy special legal benefits in the United States. Such dramatic reversal in U.S. policy seems unlikely from a divided Congress, especially given the influence of the Cuban-American lobby. Nevertheless, other countries such as Ecuador have already adjusted their immigration policies in anticipation of an influx of Cuban immigrants.
Even without the exit visa, Cubans still face a huge financial hurdle if they wish to leave the country. They still need a visa from the country they wish to visit and the few countries that do not require entrance visas stand in similar economic predicaments. This leaves Cuba with an immigration policy that makes it only slightly easier to leave the country at the risk of far more severe repercussions.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 7 print edition. Carlos Estevez is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]