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U.S. Makes Entry Both Harder and Easier for Cubans


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.



And I'm Michele Norris.

NORRIS: The Cuban government released new photos of some of Fidel Castro's 80th birthday celebration today. They show him in bed visiting with his brother, Raoul Castro, and shaking the hand of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

In this part of the program, we'll hear about how Cuban Americans are responding to news of Castro's ill health and about how the U.S. is adjusting immigration policy.

BLOCK: The Department of Homeland Security has announced new rules intended to discourage Cubans from smuggling themselves into the U.S. if Fidel Castro dies. The new rules also make it easier for some to come here legally.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.



In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced that Cuba under Castro would have special status when it came to immigration.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: I have directed the Departments of State and Justice and Health and Education and Welfare to immediately make all the necessary arrangements to permit those in Cuba who seek freedom to make an orderly entry into the United States of America.

LUDDEN: A new law allowed Cubans to bypass a tangle of rules and quotas to get to the U.S. and, once here, granted them permanent residency after just one year. But a policy designed to shame a dictator has worked pretty well for Castro.

Maria de Los Angeles Torres is with the University of Illinois at Chicago and emigrated from Cuba herself as a child.

Ms. MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES (University of Illinois): Cuba opens the door whenever they want to either embarrass the United States or get rid of dissidents or when the economic situation is completely in crisis. They also understand immigrants send home money, and immigrants are sort of the oil of the Caribbean.

LUDDEN: In the mid-‘90s when Cuba again encouraged bigger waves of migrants to take to the waters, the U.S. came up with a strange twist to its policy. If Cubans made it to dry land, they could stay. But if they were caught in U.S. waters, they'd be sent back.

It's called Wet Foot/Dry Foot and it came under heavy fire earlier this year when 15 Cuban migrants were found clinging to a partially collapsed bridge off Florida, the Coast Guard decided that did not constitute dry land and sent them back. Cuban Americans in Miami protested and members of Florida's Congressional delegation urged the administration to review the whole policy.

Today, Joanna Gonzales of Homeland Security insisted Wet Foot/Dry Foot stays the same. But there is this crucial difference - now, if Cubans are caught trying to sneak into the U.S. by water, they'll forfeit their chance to later come legally.

Ms. JOANNA GONZALES (Department of Homeland Security): We're trying to decrease but really eliminate alien smuggling, especially of Cubans. There's just so many people that unfortunately are lost in the ocean making that voyage.

LUDDEN: And so many more at risk. The number of Cubans intercepted at sea each year has doubled since 2004, another reason for the new policy.

And there's another change. Cuba allows some citizens to emigrate to the U.S. in an orderly fashion. The U.S. grants some refugee status and has special programs for others. Now, Gonzales says the overall number allowed in that way will stay the same, about 22,000 a year. But more of them will have to have family members already in the U.S.

Analyst Maria Delos Angeles Torres says that's as it should be, since U.S. policy helped divide families, she says it should help reunite them. But Ira Melman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, calls it pure politics.

Mr. IRA MELMAN (Federation for American Immigration Reform): You have a very powerful Cuban community, especially in Florida. It is a key swing political state. You've got some tight Congressional races going on this year in Florida. So, I think that the administration is really looking at electoral politics more than they're looking at promoting the kind of development of Cuba I think we'd all like to see.

LUDDEN: Some members of Cuba's regime are barred from the U.S. under all circumstances. With Fidel Castro apparently passing from power, Homeland Security says it will work with the State Department and human rights groups to update that watch list.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.