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Cuban-Americans in Congress call for changes in immigration law

"There was no future in Cuba," an accounting graduate said after entering the United States at Brownsville, Texas.

By Frances Burns
Cuban-Americans in Congress call for changes in immigration law
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), left, and Sen. Robert Menendez ((D-NJ) attended a 2013 news conference on immigration reform. Both senators are from Cuban immigrant families. UPI File Photo by Mike Theiler | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Congress say economic migrants are taking advantage of the 50-year-old law aimed at protecting political refugees.

The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed in 1966, gives immigrants from Cuba a status enjoyed by almost no one else, granting them permanent residency once they have been in the United States a year and a day and citizenship in five years. Critics say Cubans with economic motives can enter the United States easily while immigrants fleeing far more oppressive governments are returned home.

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U.S. Rep. Charles Curbelo, R-Fla., who was elected to Congress in November, said he intends to change the law.

"The president's actions on Cuba have severely undermined the law because he has essentially recognized the Cuban government as legitimate," Curbelo told the New York Times. "The United States has offered one of the most generous immigration laws perhaps in history, and certainly that is being abused systematically."

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Curbelo and Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., both from Cuban immigrant families, say the law should be re-examined following President Obama's recent move to restore diplomatic relations with Havana, as many recent immigrants travel freely back and forth. They also suggest criminals are taking advantage of the law to move money to the United States.

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The number of Cuban migrants entering the United States in 2014 was the highest in a decade, at least partly because of fears that the policy shift might lead to a change in the immigration law, El Nuevo Herald, sister paper of the Miami Herald, reported. Of the 20,384 who tried to reach the United States, 17,459 came by way of Mexico and 814 arrived in South Florida by sea, while 2,111 were on ships stopped at sea en route to Florida.

The pace appears to be picking up. Customs and Border Protection reported that at least 6,489 Cubans have arrived at the Mexican border since the new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

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Javier Martinez, 24, who entered Brownsville, Texas, on Dec. 30 after a two-month trip that began with a flight from Havana to Ecuador, appeared to be motivated more by economics than politics.

"There was no future in Cuba," Martínez told the Herald. "I am a graduate in accounting and finance and I was working merely to buy food and some clothes, and that's it."

Officials in the Obama administration say there are no plans to change the law or the "wet-foot dry-foot" policy that guarantees Cubans entrance once they reach U.S. shores while allowing those caught at sea to be turned back. The policy is one reason Mexico has become an increasingly popular route, even for those who plan to join Florida's large Cuban community.

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Cuban-Americans are divided on the issue, the Times said. More recent arrivals would like the law to stand, while those who left decades ago, or whose families did, would like easy immigration limited to political refugees.

Bruno Barreiro sponsored a resolution adopted unanimously by the Miami-Dade County Commission that asks Congress to change the law.

"How can someone claim to be politically persecuted, have a special path to residency and citizenship, and a year and a day after being here travel back to Cuba?" he said.

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