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Our Mini-Migration Crisis

a symbol-based 'do not enter' sign next to a tree
photo by David Amsler

On a much smaller scale, the European migration crisis is playing out in this hemisphere too – with one or two interesting wrinkles.

Costa Rica has issued a warning to undocumented Cuban migrants hoping to use the country as a stepping stone on a journey to America. The country’s foreign minister, Manuel Gonzalez Sanz, has said the country “will make use of all domestic and international measures at its disposal to address this situation.” Cubans who enter Costa Rica without visas may be deported, possibly back to Cuba.

In other words: no mas.

The parallel between Costa Rica and places like Macedonia and Hungary is obvious. Costa Rica, too, has argued that it lacks the resources to handle waves of migrants seeking to traverse the country. Costa Rica, too, will shut the door on migrants, saying it is in no position to do otherwise.

In this hemisphere’s version of Europe’s crisis, Germany’s policy of leniency for migrants from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere is mirrored in our own Cuban Adjustment Act. The 1966 law allows Cubans who manage to get to American soil to stay here. After one year of U.S. residence, Cubans may apply for a green card, even if they do not meet ordinary requirements.

One glaring and major difference between the two situations, however, immediately springs to mind. If a Syrian migrant managed, before the borders closed, to make it into Hungary and asked for passage to Germany through the states between the two countries, the migrant would not be asking for something Hungarians themselves do not already enjoy. Hungarians can travel freely to Germany – or Austria, or Slovakia, or the Czech Republic – whenever they wish.

But the Cuban migrant route passes through relatively stable places like Panama and Costa Rica and decidedly unstable places like Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico – none of which enjoy special immigration privileges to the United States. It must be especially galling to nations through which Cuban migrants pass that they cannot freely send their own citizens to the United States the same way. An undocumented Guatemalan would be put on a plane and sent back as soon as she was discovered. But an undocumented Cuban who arrives in the U.S. via Guatemala is welcome to stay.

No wonder Central American countries tend to resent the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Costa Rica’s declaration did not come out of nowhere. The country, along with its neighbor Panama, spent the end of 2015 embroiled in a major crisis when Nicaragua decided to begin denying visas to Cubans. This decision turned an already heavy load of Cuban migrants into a bottleneck, preventing their flow northward toward the American border. The Cubans were stranded until a group of Central American countries agreed to work together to airlift groups of migrants to El Salvador, from which they could continue their journey.

This is not to mention the major smuggling operations in which “coyotes” charge undocumented Cubans thousands of dollars to get them as far as the U.S.-Mexican border. Costa Rica’s massive crackdown on such smugglers last fall left thousands of undocumented Cubans without guides or papers, adding to the number of stranded Cubans on the country’s borders.

The current wave of Cuban immigration has a variety of causes, but one inarguable driver is the fear that Cubans’ unique treatment may draw to an end now that diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. have been restored. Certainly there are those in America who have called for the law’s repeal, but there does not seem to be any sense of urgency from lawmakers to scrap it. Given this administration’s predilection to kick the can on immigration policy as long as possible, it seems likely that President Obama will leave the Cuban Adjustment Act for Congress, or the next president, to deal with or continue to ignore as they see fit.

Control of borders concurrent with rationing migration practices is an issue that literally spans the globe. If we are going to tsk-tsk the Europeans for their inarguably botched handling of Middle Eastern refugees, we might want to first take a look in our own backyard.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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