Sunday’s arrival of President Obama in Havana could be seen as a revolutionary moment. It’s perhaps not quite on the scale of former President Richard Nixon visiting China back in 1972, but it is a geopolitical transformation nonetheless.
That transition, though, will not be as sudden as some think. Witness the round-up of dissidents arrested and rearrested in the days and hours leading up to the visit, or the fact that Cuban TV heralded the President’s historic arrival with nothing more than a 15-second blurb on the evening news.
The visit may serve as a catalyst for further change in Cuba, but what about change in the US?
Since 1966 Cubans have been promised permanent legal residence just by showing up at a port of entry. Over 43,000 Cubans took advantage of this special treatment just last year – two-thirds of them flying to Ecuador, traveling up through Mexico and entering through Laredo, Texas.
US Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo native, represents the 28th district, which includes the area where so many Cubans are coming into the U.S. He says he’s concerned about the surge of Cubans coming in to the United States as a matter of unfair play.
“I have unaccompanied kids and other people coming in in large numbers,” he says. “A lot of them, of course, will be subject to deportation. But then, in the Laredo area where the Cubans are coming in, there is a special type of treatment.”
To remedy the special treatment, part of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cuellar thinks the US should treat Cuban immigrants the same as the government treats others. He says he’d like to see all immigrants treated on a case-by-case basis, not “across the board like they’re being treated right now.”
Cuellar says although he hasn’t introduced any legislation on the matter, he is instead trying to let Congress know what’s going on in Texas.
“This is a presidential year, and you know what happens in Washington,” he says. “Anything dealing with immigration is not going to go really far.”
Despite the warming of relations, Cuba remains oppressive. The Human Rights Watch reports more than 7,000 arbitrary detentions in 2014, the year President Obama announced a change in posture toward Cuba. There’s also untold numbers of political prisoners, but we don’t know how many because international inspectors aren’t allowed to investigate.
Cuellar says while this situation is tough, it’s not any more so than what is happening in Central America and other countries refugees are fleeing.
“The case still remains that there’s no other country, as far as I know, except for Cuba that gets a blanket,” Cuellar says.”You just touch the US and you get to stay here. If they would be subject to case-by-case like we do with every other country – I don’t have a problem. They would fall under the general immigration laws that we have.”