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Could uncertainty over Trump lead to a Mariel-like exodus from Cuba?

People wait for visas outside the United States embassy in Havana, Cuba, the day after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the U.S. general election Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Trump's victory caused concern in Cuba, over his threat to roll back President Barack Obama's normalization of relations unless Cuban President Raul Castro agrees to more political freedoms.
People wait for visas outside the United States embassy in Havana, Cuba, the day after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the U.S. general election Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Trump's victory caused concern in Cuba, over his threat to roll back President Barack Obama's normalization of relations unless Cuban President Raul Castro agrees to more political freedoms. AP

The surge of Cubans fleeing to the United States could grow as uncertainty swirls around the island about whether Donald Trump will end the still nascent U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba once he becomes president.

Experts say the current influx of Cubans, which is already double the rate that existed before relations were restored at the end of 2014, could turn into a Mariel-like stampede, especially if Trump fiddles with the special privileges Cuban immigrants receive from the United States. Trump and some Cuban-American leaders such as Sen. Marco Rubio have suggested curbs on those privileges.

“Our biggest fear should be another Mariel,” said Eduardo Gamarra, who helped arriving Mariel refugees in the 1980s and now is a professor of international relations at Florida International University. “I’m not saying it’s going to be another Mariel, but we should be prepared. The notion of opening gave people hope. Closing doesn’t give anyone hope. Closing gives them fear.”

The United States is already undergoing one of the greatest influx of Cubans since the 1980 Mariel boatlift when Fidel Castro allowed more than 125,000 Cubans to leave the country amid a weakened economy.

In the days since, there have been signs of anxiety among ordinary Cubans, who lined up outside the U.S. embassy in Havana on the day after Republican Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election. The Cuban government followed with an announcement that the military would be conducting tactical exercises to prepare troops to confront “a range of actions by the enemy.”

The death of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro a few days later and the struggles of the Cuban economy have increased uncertainty on the island.

Groups that assist Cuban migrants such as Church World Service have made sure they have additional places for refugees to stay if they see an uptick in arrivals. Miami schools are ready for another “potential influx.” Between July 2015 and January 2016, Miami-Dade schools enrolled more than 13,000 foreign-born students, most of whom were from Cuba.

“Just as we did during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 Cuban rafter exodus, this school district will continue its long-standing history of opening our arms to welcome, embrace, and educate all students,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said in a statement following Castro’s death.

The U.S. Coast Guard hasn’t seen a major change in the numbers crossing the Florida Straits, but they’re prepared to respond with increased patrol boats, larger Coast Guard Ships and additional flights to identify and local vessels.

“We’re watching the situation very closely,” said Willie Carmichael, deputy chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard 7th district in Miami. “If we start to see those indications of more increased flow, we’re positioned to respond.”

The numbers of Cubans who have entered the U.S. has spiked dramatically since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a renewal of ties with the island nation in late 2014.

During the first 11 months of fiscal year 2016, more than 50,000 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry, a 25 percent increase from last year’s total of 43,159 and more than double fiscal 2014’s total of 23,750, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

Among the 50,000 Cubans who entered the United States, fewer than 10,000 came directly to Miami, while the majority crossed via the Mexican border.

Gamarra and William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist at American University in Washington, said those numbers could increase even more if Trump or Congress decides to end any of the special benefits that allow arriving Cubans to stay legally and receive public benefits.

Our biggest fear should be another Mariel.

Eduardo Gamarra, Florida International University

Earlier this year, Trump questioned the fairness of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which lets Cubans obtain legal status and a path to citizenship even if they arrive without a visa or are smuggled into the country, when other immigrants must wait years.

The law has drawn criticism from other Latin American governments because it grants special privileges only to Cubans. Some Cuban Americans have also called for its end because, they say, it’s being abused by Cubans coming to the U.S. for economic reasons instead of helping political refugees as it was designed.

“I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing?” Donald Trump told the Tampa Bay Times in February. “You know, we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people, who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment.”

Rubio, meanwhile, has proposed legislation ending a decades-old program, known as the Refugee Education Assistance Act, that provides island immigrants welfare benefits from the moment they set foot on American soil.

Rubio said Friday that every aspect of U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to be reexamined by the Trump administration and that ending the widespread abuse of benefits intended for Cuban refugees should be on the list of priorities. Millions of taxpayer dollars are being abused, he said, that are supposed to go strictly to those fleeing religious or political persecution.

“If you’re coming from Cuba, receiving refugee benefits and returning to the island all the time, then you shouldn’t be eligible for refugee benefits from U.S. taxpayers. We want to make sure refugee benefits are not creating a financial incentive to come to the U.S.,” Rubio said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Kendall Republican and fellow Cuban-American, is sponsoring a similar measure in the House of Representatives.

The reasons for the rise in Cuban migration to the U.S. no doubt go beyond uncertainty about aid programs. LeoGrande noted two other factors that might influence migration: the lifting by the Cuban government of the requirement that Cubans leaving the island apply for an exit permit, and the easing of limits on how much money people in the U.S. can send their relatives.

Suddenly, LeoGrande said, many Cubans found it easier to travel, with access to cash to buy plane tickets to South America and bus tickets to make the journey north.

In the spirit of fighting illegal immigration, LeoGrande said, Trump also could end the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” policy that allows Cubans who touch ground in the United States to remain in the country under a special immigration status called parole and, a year later, become eligible under the Cuban Adjustment Act to seek permanent residency.

LeoGrande said the special conditions that Cuban receive are not consistent with Trump’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration.

“Cubans are not, in a technical sense, arriving illegally, but they’re arriving without documentation,” LeoGrande said. “He’s promised to close the door on undocumented migrants and this is something he could do right away and point to it and say ‘I did it.’”

It would be something Trump could do quickly on the immigration front that would be a big headline.

William LeoGrande, American University

While in years past, fiddling with the Cuban Adjustment Act would have been largely frowned on by the Cuban-American population in south Florida, recent polls show the community is increasingly ready for change.

A September Florida International University poll shows that support among Miami-Dade Cubans for the Cuban Adjustment Act has dropped from 80 percent in 2014 to 60 percent. Most said they supported better diplomatic ties with Cuba and 54 percent want to end the U.S. trade embargo against the island.

Dagoberto Valdés, head of the Convivencia Studies Center in the western Cuban city of Pinar del Rio, said Cubans followed the U.S. election closely, but that it’s too early to make conclusions about how it might affect migration patterns.

Concern about the adjustment act ending may be one element of the migration, Valdés said, but the fundamental driver has little to with the United States and more to do with the tough economic and political conditions in the country. He doubted the Cuban government would do anything to discourage Cubans from leaving the country.

“Remember, the migration of Cubans is an escape valve for the Cuban government,” Valdés said. “It allows people to leave who not only think differently from the Cuban government, but a large quantity of citizens who want to improve their lives and need work. It removes pressure for the government.”

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