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Why the Cuba “wet feet, dry feet” policy should continue

The United States has historically had a wet feet, dry feet policy for Cuba, that basically says that people from Cuba who arrive at and stay for a nontrivial length in the United States would be allowed to stay in the United States and qualified for expedited “legal permanent resident” status. Historically, this measure was intended to undermine the communist regime in Cuba (for more background on US-Cuba relations, see Wikipedia and the Council on Foreign Relations). The recent thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States has led people to question the wisdom of continuing with the policy. When Cuba announced that it would be more relaxed in allowing people to leave the country for travel, Alex Nowrasteh wrote that this would be good for the US. Recently, US President Barack Obama, and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, announced a new chapter of cooperation in US-Cuba relations. Is the “wet feet, dry feet” policy still relevant?

How the wet feet, dry feet policy is discriminatory

Image credit: Batista’s Cuba Still Hurts U. S. Image. A Little Girl Shows Us How Much from Cuban Insider

Jason Dzubow, author of the Asylumist, a thoughtful blog on asylum and refugee issues, thinks it’s time to end the policy. He writes:

It seems to me that the CAA and our over-all Cuba policy exists because of our government’s decision that this was the best way to isolate the Castro regime and force democratic change on our island neighbor. More specifically, anti-Castro Cubans in Miami pushed our nation’s Cuba policy towards the all-stick, no-carrot approach that—50 years later—has accomplished nothing. Now, it seems attitudes among the Cuban American community have shifted. To be sure, many still oppose normalization, but—so far at least—we have not seen the type of angry, in-the-streets reaction that characterized the Elian Gonzales affair during the Clinton Presidency. Perhaps there is more widespread recognition that the old policy hasn’t worked, and that we need to try something new.

So now that we are moving towards a new phase in our relationship with Cuba, it makes sense to end the CAA. The situation in Cuba is less dangerous than in many other countries, and so there is no longer any justification for the CAA based on humanitarian reasons (though I believe there really never was a valid justification for the law based on humanitarian reasons). The only logical reason for the CAA was as a propaganda tool against the Castro regime. I doubt this ever really worked (except maybe in the minds of some in the anti-Castro Cuban community), and—given that we are moving towards normalized relations—it certainly makes no sense at all any more.

All of this is not to say that the Cuban regime respects human rights or allows political dissent. It’s clear that the government represses the political opposition, and that it detains and persecutes perceived opponents. But that type of behavior is, unfortunately, all too common in many countries, and it does not justify a blanket asylum for everyone who comes from a country with a poor human rights record. Indeed, it is exactly why we have an asylum system in the first place.

Dzubow makes a number of valid points. I don’t think the “wet feet, dry feet” policy is sufficiently important that it is worth maintaining at high political and diplomatic cost. However, I think that proactively trying to get rid of it to engineer a fairer system is misguided. I describe three reasons below:

  1. True fairness requires open borders, not equitable miserly treatment of refugees from all countries
  2. Shortening the queue: special treatment for Cubans means less backlog for other countries
  3. The value of precedent

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What should the Obama administration do?

The Obama administration is expected to announce a series of executive orders later today (8pm EST) regarding immigration policy. Many suspect that the President may provide relief from deportation and work permits to millions of US illegal aliens, among other changes. The best sketch of what we can expect has been provided by Fox News, which has allegedly received a ten point draft of what Obama will announce.

I have reservations about the Obama administration attempting to pass immigration reform via executive order. My chief concerns are that it sets precedent for greater executive discretion in migration policy, and that congressional Republicans will simply spend the remainder of Obama’s term trying to reverse ‘Obamigration’.

Co-blogger Nathan Smith and Bryan Caplan penned a more optimistic perspective on Obama’s use of executive powers back when the administration first announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012.  Caplan seems less optimistic about this latest round of executive action.

My reservation should not be taken to mean that the Obama administration should stay quiet on immigration. Far from it, there are two major steps the administration could pursue if it were serious about being more pro-immigration.

1. Negotiating NAFTA 2.0

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is celebrating its twentieth birthday this year. The trade agreement improved trade relations between the United States, Canada and Mexico in several sectors, but it fell short on several others including labor mobility.

Obama could call up his counterparts in Mexico City and Ottawa and begin negotiations on expanding NAFTA to remove any remaining trade restrictions between the three countries. The issue of labor mobility was ignored in the initial phase of NAFTA to minimize political tensions, but surely after two decades we can begin dialogue on allowing the free movement of people across North America?

The Schengen Area in the European Union provides us with a prime example of how to, and how not to, implement a free movement zone among the North American nations. Ideally a free movement zone between the North American nations should allow the unrestricted movement of individuals, while not creating tax burden on the host nations to provide state welfare.

I have written on this possibility previously. Of related interest Freakonomics recently had a podcast on a US-Mexico ‘merger’.

2. Allowing the Federalization of Immigration Policy.

It is unlikely that we will see sweeping reforms of the immigration system at the federal level in the near future. Even if last year’s Senate immigration bill were passed the system would only be marginally improved. Things are more optimistic at the state level though, and several state legislatures have signaled willingness to pursue their own regional policies.

Unfortunately most state legislators have curbed their proposals in fear that the federal government won’t stand for their actions. If the Obama administration made it clear that it were willing to see states take a more proactive role in shaping immigration policy things might turn out for the better in the long run.

For comparison let us consider marijuana legalization efforts. At the federal level marijuana is still illegal, but the Obama administration has thus far tolerated its legalization by the states of Colorado and Washington. In the most recent midterm elections Alaska, Oregon, and Washington DC all passed legislation to legalize marijuana. At this rate it won’t be long before marijuana is legal nationwide.

Why not allow states the same leeway in immigration policy? If Utah wishes to grant legal status to its illegal alien population and create a guest worker program for its state, why not allow it to do so? If New York wants to grant citizenship to its resident migrants, why stop it? Allowing states to set their own migration policies might lead to a few of them adopting anti-migration policies, such as Arizona, but this is a small cost to be paid.

The Obama administration should set parameters under which the states can work and thereafter sit back and watch them experiment with migration policy.

I have previously written on the subject in We Need More San Franciscos and Thoughts on State-Based Immigration Reform . My co-blogger John Lee has also explored the concept as it relates to Canada’s immigration system . Alex Nowrasteh and his colleagues at the Cato Institute have teased the idea out in previous events , and policy analysis papers . The Reason Foundation has also begun toying with the idea recently.

Partisan politics is holding immigrants’ lives and liberty hostage

In the midst of the ongoing US government shutdown that took effect earlier today, people have been accusing politicians on one side or another of holding the nation and its people hostage to partisan politics. The shutdown will have tragic effects for many lives, no doubt — wage earners are forced to stay home from work, needy people are forced to go without the benefits their government promised to them. But let’s not forget the entire class of innocent people whose lives and freedom have been held hostage to partisan politics for years, if not decades: the innocents, citizens or not, who have fallen prey to the US government’s War on Immigrants.

Some months ago, the National Journal ran an article on the current US immigration debate titled What Undocumented Workers Really Want, with the subtitle: It’s not always citizenship. They just want to do their jobs, cash their paychecks, and be left alone. The article mostly focuses on the lives of restaurant owners and their immigrant employees. It illustrates that the political concerns driving the current US immigration debate are extremely remote from the lives of the people who immigration reform is supposed to help. And one takeaway from this is that Republicans may well be right when they accuse Democrats of cynically caring more about the votes of immigrants than the lives of those immigrants.

The article makes a number of observations about the lives of the unauthorised immigrants in US society:

  • They save substantial amounts of money (sometimes in the thousands of dollars) to pay for smuggling them into the US
  • They lose contact with their family, because they cannot leave the US: one woman in the story had to send condolences for the death of her father by mail
  • They fear any contact with the law, because a simple traffic stop could put them away for life
  • They can easily find employment despite their lack of legal documentation, but always live in fear of losing their job should their legal status be discovered
  • Many employers love their unauthorised workers — not because their labour is cheap, but because they value their employees (to the point that one employer in the story told their unauthorised worker upfront who disclosed her unauthorised status to them that they would worry about it only if the government actually went after them)

The article is obviously only one side of the story. But I think this side of the story is one that the larger empirics back up: immigrants in the US, both authorised and unauthorised, have fantastic labour force participation rates. They have lower rates of detention or incarceration. Most immigrants, whether they are legal or not, are ordinary and innocent people.

The law at the present forces these people to live like criminals. They are on the run from the law for a “crime” that, if it can be called a crime at all, occurred years ago in most cases. There is an easy way to fix this: grant legal residency to these people. Lift the sword of Damocles that threatens to deport and separate them from their homes, families, and careers.

Yet as the article observes, this is not what the current debate about US immigration reform turns on. Rather, the Democratic politicians pushing for “reform” want to make these immigrants into full-fledged citizens — whether today, or some point in the future. Democrats are especially fearful that some immigrants never be able to naturalise.

The article hints that Democrats are motivated by the prospect of these immigrants’ votes. Certainly, Republicans are motivated by the prospect of stopping the addition of these new voters. But what excuse does either party have to hold these people’s liberty and the interests of society hostage to their own partisan interests?

On any other issue, we would be appalled if a political party blatantly blocked or supported an initiative, not because they thought it was a good or bad idea, but because they were afraid of its implications for their partisan strength. The ongoing debate about voter identification rules in the US is surely driven in large part by partisan motivations. Yet you will barely find any Democrats protesting stricter voter ID laws because “It prevents Democrats from voting”. Neither will you find Republicans supporting stricter laws for the same reason. Both cite policy reasons for their position, not partisan politics. But politicians and ordinary people think nothing of baldly citing “It will add more Democratic voters to the rolls” as reason enough to support or oppose the regularisation of the 11 million+ unauthorised immigrants in the US.

It’s galling enough that Republicans are blocking immigration policy reforms on the basis that this is harmful to them. But one oft-overlooked point is that Democrats are similarly likely to overlook potential compromises on the basis that this doesn’t generously enough grant citizenship to unauthorised immigrants. In other words, when given the choice between ending the War on Immigrants (but with less-than-ideal citizenship provisions) or continuing it, Democratic politicians have often chosen to stick with the status quo.

The article obliquely agrees with the Democratic spiel that not granting immigrants citizenship makes them a vulnerable subclass of the community. But how would they be any less vulnerable than they are now? The government’s War on Immigrants makes these people vulnerable to deportation at any time that would take them from their jobs, families, and homes. Even if they do not face deportation, they cannot progress in their career because they can lose their job at any time. The government literally has the power to stop all this with the stroke of a pen, and make this entire class of people much less vulnerable to the oppression of harsh employers or overbearing bureaucrats — all this without the politically explosive granting of citizenship.

Why should we hold protection for these people hostage to the partisan interests of any party, Democratic or Republican? For the Democrats, is holding out for citizenship for these immigrants worth allowing the government to continue spending its scarce resources on terrorising them and their communities? Is it truly humane to support continuing government-sponsored terrorism of innocent families and employers simply for the sake of shutting down any chance of a guest-worker programme?

In fairness to the Democrats, they have not been the primary roadblocks in the current US immigration policy debate. The Republican members of the US House of Representatives may be the ones standing in the way of further movement on amnesty for the 11 million unauthorised immigrants like those in the article. But there are still plenty — by one count, 84 — who believe in ending or at least tamping down the War on Immigrants. It should be incumbent on the Democrats in the House to do all they can to work with these Republicans to find an acceptable compromise and move forward. If we can somehow obtain Republican support by tightening provisions in the law for citizenship in return for ending the War on Immigrants, we should seriously consider this option. We can’t just take it off the table.

Immigrants are no different from anyone else. They want to live in peace with their families and earn honest wages. It makes a mockery of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ supposed commitments to the family and to the hard worker when they prefer to keep the War on Immigrants going instead of offering these people a path to legal residency. It’s one thing to play political games about infrastructure projects. It’s a completely different thing to play political games about bringing the entire armed force of the state to bear on people who just want to earn an honest living and live with their families. Keeping the war on these people going, whether for the sake of a broader naturalisation policy or purely playing a partisan game, is absolutely unacceptable.

Weekly link roundup 2

This is the second of our weekly link roundups (the first was here). As always, the pieces linked may have been published earlier, and linking does not imply endorsement.

Croatia, the EU, and Yet Another Experiment in Open Borders

Yesterday Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union. In doing so joined Europe’s great experiment in free trade and free immigration across diverse languages, beliefs, and cultures. The EU is not without its issues, but creating a large open borders region across Europe has not been the reason countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland have gotten into trouble.

Croatia is currently looking at a  18% unemployment rate and increasing options to move to a country like Germany with its 5% rate should be welcome. There are limitations still in place however. Croats won’t be able to go work in the United Kingdom for another seven years, and the country won’t enter the passport-less Schengen Area until 2015 at the earliest. Part of being able to do means clamping down harder on the country’s borders with countries outside the EU, a process that will require some significant investments.

Joining the EU probably won’t solve all Croatia’s current woes. But every person from Croatia who gets to try life somewhere else in Europe, and every European who finds a place to live or work in Croatia is a little improvement in the world. And every time a country opens itself up to freer migration without causing disaster the empirical case for open borders gets just a little stronger.