On Sunday, Feb. 17th, the Houston Chronicle published an article with the heading “Hundreds of Cuban Immigrants Finding a Welcome in Houston.” As a Cuban immigrant myself, now residing in Houston, the article brought a smile to my face.
I was part of more than 14,000 children who fled Castro’s regime between 1960 and 1962 and joined a program that became known as the Pedro Pan Program.* We flew to this country with special Visa Waivers.
The group the Houston Chronicle referred to are Cuban nationals who have crossed the Texas-Mexico border spurred by a U. S. policy that allows Cubans who reach American soil by land to seek asylum.
Although the Cuban exodus into Houston is relatively new, the policy allowing those who arrive by land to seek residency began in 1995 when the Clinton administration made an agreement with the Cuban government that anyone intercepted at sea would be returned. This revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 has been referred to as the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy.”
Before 1966, Cubans arriving in this country, regardless of how they arrived, were not repatriated and in fact were allowed to pursue US residency a year later.
The lenient immigration rules Cubans enjoy in the U.S. have been a thorn on the side of other immigrants, who have found the road to citizenship arduous.
Immigration reform has been in the minds of many people, particularly since the last Presidential elections when it was a heated topic of debate. Obama said that immigration reform would be a part of his second term, but some had reasons to be skeptical. He had made the same vow during his 2008 campaign, yet a push for a comprehensive reform bill never came; Obama blamed the Republicans for “obstructionism.”
After Obama’s win, political pundits suggested that proposing electric fences and alligators along the southern border by some Republican candidates, as well as Mitt Romney’s suggestion of “self-deportation” for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, cost the Republican Party the Hispanic vote and the presidency. As a result, these analysts believe that in order to attract some of these voters in the future Republicans will accept less drastic measures regarding immigration reform.
In fact, Florida Senator, Marco Antonio Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, and a great Hispanic hope for the Republican Party, has emerged as one of the most influential voices in the national debate over immigration reform. In an article published in the February 18th issue of Time written by Michael Grunwald, he discusses his views on the topic. He agrees that “there is no way to round up and deport 11 million people living in the shadows, but he worries that excessive generosity could end up attracting 11 million more.” His proposal and Obama’s plan overlap in many ways, although Rubio believes that the “path to citizenship” should be tougher. The key, he says, is “to strike a balance.”
Rubio’s mother, according to his own account, left a voice mail for him in Spanish saying, “Don’t mess with the immigrants, my son. Please, don’t mess with them.” She told him that undocumented Americans, “los pobrecitos (the poor things) are human beings just like us, and they came for the same reasons we came. To work. To improve their lives. So please, don’t mess with them.”
Her message resonated with the advice I and many other Pedro Pans received from our parents when we came to America. “You’re going to a free country, but don’t take freedom for granted. You must work hard to improve your life.”
It is clear that immigration reform is necessary in this country. Let’s hope that Congress deals with the issue quickly and fairly for all those who will be affected by the policy. “Don’t mess with los probrecitos.”
How do you feel about immigration reform?
*In my upcoming memoir, I deal with my experience in the Pedro Pan Program and the immigration of the Cuban children who participated in this exodus.