By Jose Aponte, Immigration Attorney at Powers Law Group
Changes are coming for the U.S. policy towards the Caribbean island of Cuba, a policy that Trump administration had criticized as “one-sided deal.” On June 16, 2017 the President announced that the administration sought to: 1- Enhance compliance with U.S. law; 2- hold the Cuban regime accountable for oppression and human rights abuses; 3- Further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people; and 4- lay the groundwork for empowering the Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty.
So what did change?
The new policy, according to officials, is said to channel economic activities away from Cuba’s Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), an organization that the U.S. government describes as a “Cuban military monopoly.” American individuals and entities will be allowed to develop economic ties directly with the private, small business sector in Cuba. It is thought that this approach will have the effect of encouraging American commerce with free Cuban businesses while putting pressure on the Cuban government to allow the expansion of the Cuban private sector.
The policy does place travel restrictions that are said to “better enforce the statutory ban on United States tourism to Cuba.” Some of the changes include, limiting to group travel all who are not traveling for non-academic educational purposes. All self-directed, individual travel permitted by the Obama administration will be prohibited. Cuban-Americans, however, will still be able to visit relatives in Cuba and send them remittances.
American officials stated that any further improvements in the United States-Cuba relationship will depend entirely on the Cuban government’s willingness to improve the lives of the Cuban people, including the promotion of the rule of law, respect for human rights, and taking concrete steps to foster political and economic freedoms.
The policy memorandum directs the Treasury and Commerce Departments to begin the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days. The policy changes will not take effect until those Departments have finalized their new regulations, a process that may take several months. The Treasury Department has issued Q&As that provide additional detail on the impact of the policy changes on American travelers and businesses.
What Remains Unchanged?
Not all U.S. policy towards Cuba was reset. Some provisions from the previous Obama administration will remain unchanged. For instance, embassies in both countries will remain open. Although more restricted, direct commercial flights as well as cruise ships from the U.S. will continue to operate.
Travelers will still be able to spend unlimited amounts of money on the island and can still bring back Cuban rum and cigars to the United States. Americans will continue to be free to send unlimited amounts of money to Cubans on the island. Bilateral agreements penned on issues such as combating drug trafficking and mitigating oil spills will remain in place. Most noticeably, however, what has been at the center of U.S.-Cuba relations for the last half century — the U.S. economic embargo— also remains.
What does this all mean for Cuban Immigrants?
What, if anything, do these changes in United States policy towards Cuba mean for the Cuban immigrant that decides to leave the island and sets for U.S. shores? The first question that arose quickly after the changes were made public was whether the Trump administration would reinstate the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, the name given to the revised application to a provision of the Cuban Adjustment Act. “Wet foot, dry foot” allowed those Cuban individuals who managed to make it to U.S. shores a chance to remain in the country and become a legal permanent resident after one year. All those who were detained in U.S. territorial waters were sent back to Cuba or a third country. Back in January 2017, the Obama administration put an end to “wet foot, dry foot,” as well as the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program.
It is important to note that the Cuban Adjustment Act (“CAA”), passed by Congress in 1966, remains law in the United States. The CCA gives the Attorney General the discretion to grant permanent residence to Cuban natives or citizens applying for a green card if: 1) They have been present in the United States for, at least, 1 year; 2) They have been admitted or paroled; and 3) They are admissible as immigrants. The CCA also provides other ways for Cubans to legally migrate to the U.S. through an immigrant visa issuance, refugee admission, the diversity lottery and the Special Cuban Migration Program (“SCMP”), also known as the Cuban Lottery.
It is difficult to anticipate how much longer any of these programs towards Cuba will remain U.S. policy and/or law. What is certain is that as U.S.-Cuba relations continue to evolve, immigration attorneys will need to be able to anticipate these changes and quickly assess how they may affect their Cuban clients.