Cubans to rush to US amid a swirl of island rumors

A rising number of Cubans are fleeing for the United States as relations thaw between the two countries — not because they think it's easier, but because they're afraid that it will soon get a lot harder.

Rumors are spreading across the island that the special immigration status the United States has afforded to Cuban refugees for decades may soon come to an end, prompting a flood of migrants into Latin American countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica in a bid to get to the U.S. by land.

A major influx of Cuban immigrants is real, says Ted Henken, co-author of "Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape." "If you look at the numbers, it's already happening. A record number of people are leaving Cuba — record by even Mariel Boatlift standards. It's ironic because those people worried about the end of the Cuban Adjustment Act and leaving in large numbers are going to make it more likely that the Cuban Adjustment Act ends."

The act, informally known as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, is a law passed during the Johnson administration in 1966 under which Cuban migrants heading to the United States who are intercepted at sea ("wet feet") are sent back to Cuba or to another country, while those who make it to land ("dry feet") are allowed to remain in the United States. In effect, the law gives Cubans a special status that makes migration to the United States easier for them than it is for other nationals.

In the 12-month period ending Sept. 20, around 45,000 Cubans had reached the U.S.-Mexico border, with numbers still on the rise, according to reports in the Miami Herald and elsewhere. By comparison, the total number of Cubans seeking lawful permanent resident status in the United States from all points in 2013 was 32,219, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The influx of Cubans prompted Ecuador to end its own no-visa policy in November, preventing Cubans from using the country as a springboard to the United States. Nicaragua followed suit, blocking Cubans traveling north from Costa Rica. The travel limitations have resulted in a humanitarian crisis,adding fuel to the fire of an existing tense diplomatic relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

The White House has never announced any plans to end the special treatment of Cuban refugees. However, the rumor persists, due in part to the secretive manner in which U.S.-Cuban relations have been conducted recently.

"When the U.S. announced its deal with Cuba, it had been after a year-and-a-half of secret negotiation. They could be very well preparing to change the law," Henken said. "They just announce it one morning that the law is changed. Now it's too late for you to try to get out."

Henken, who is president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, blames the country's long history of economic and political discourse for pushing people out of Cuba and credits the Cuban Adjustment Act for pulling Cubans to the United States. The number of people born in Cuba and living in the U.S. grew by 78 percent, up from 636,000 in 1980 to 1.1 million in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

"There's a whole other Cuba in the United States. They can get to South Florida and they're in the capitalist version of Cuba, Miami. Within six months, someone can have a job, a car, an apartment. They can have all the stuff they can't get in Cuba, even if they work for 30 or 40 years," said Henken.

Cubans are the most geographically concentrated of all Hispanic origin groups in the United States, with 68 percent of them living in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center.

Jose Azel, a political exile from Cuba and a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, feels it is crucial that South Florida find a balance between welcoming newcomers and maintaining orderly immigration.

There is a growing concern in South Florida that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused. Some Cuban expats have started criminal enterprises, including Medicaid scams, and used the law to escape justice and go back to Cuba, according to Henken, who fears the trend will continue if the policy goes unchanged.

"I think what we want is to certainly maintain the possibility to welcome those that are escaping from a totalitarian regime. And as American citizens, we want to curtail the abuses within the community. There is good reason to call for modification," said Azel.

Lillian Guerra, author of "Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption and Resistance," grew up in Miami in the 1980s and was joined by close to 40 of her Cuban-born relatives. While Guerra has seen her relatives benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act, she views it with a critical eye and believes it should have been eliminated a long time ago.

"It offers the Cuban government a safety valve for discontent and the opportunity for a brain drain," said Guerra, a professor at the University of Florida. "The brain drain helps the communist state in Cuba maintain itself."

Guerra said she feels that the broad policy, which grants refugee status to all Cubans, is unfair and opens the door to abuse of the system. Treating Cuban refugees the way all refugees are treated — requiring them to show proof that they are subject to political oppression — would be a more fair path to citizenship, she said.