Miami Republican files legislation in Congress to end automatic benefits for Cuban immigrants

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo answers reporters’ questions in Miami in October.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo answers reporters’ questions in Miami in October. EL NUEVO HERALD

Citing flagrant abuse of government funds, a Miami congressman published legislation Tuesday to stop automatically granting Cubans in the U.S. welfare benefits that take most immigrants of other nationalities years to obtain.

Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, himself a Cuban American, filed a bill to amend existing federal law that treats all Cuban arrivals as refugees or political asylees — meaning they are entitled to food stamps, Medicaid, disability insurance and other assistance.

Under his proposal, which Curbelo cast as a matter of fairness, Cubans would be treated like immigrants from most other countries, who are required to file a refugee or asylum claim — and wait years for it to be approved — before qualifying for special benefits. Only Haitian immigrants, already treated like Cubans under the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980, would continue to be exempted upon legal arrival in the U.S.

“Cubans coming to the United States will have the same opportunity as immigrants from other nations like Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Central America — from any country — to work and earn an honest living while contributing to our great nation,” Curbelo said in a web video released Tuesday to explain his proposal. “Like asylum seekers from all over the world, those Cubans seeking public assistance benefits will have to demonstrate that they left Cuba fleeing political persecution and are unable to return under the current totalitarian regime.”

His proposal would affect only Cubans who immigrate to the U.S. after his law is passed. The bill would also require the Obama administration to verify the residency of Cubans receiving federal benefits, to weed out those getting the assistance while living in Cuba.

Curbelo’s three-page legislation doesn’t touch the Cuban Adjustment Act, the 1966 law that gives Cubans the privilege of applying for permanent residency after 366 days in the U.S. They would still qualify for all eligible federal benefits as residents and, later, citizens.

But Curbelo acknowledged his legislation, HR 4247, dubbed the “Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act of 2015,” is a “first step” toward rewriting U.S.-Cuba immigration policy, which would eventually involve tackling the CAA. The freshman congressman has separately been working for months on legislation to crack down on so-called economic refugees from Cuba who claim U.S. residency, established for victims of political persecution, only to travel to the island before becoming U.S. citizens.

“There are numerous abuses in relation to our U.S.-Cuba immigration policy,” Curbelo said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “I consider this an important first step in starting to end those abuses, but there are others. Certainly we’re all familiar with the arguments that people who are adjusting under the Cuban Adjustment Act — the spirit of the law is that they’re all refugees and asylees, yet they travel back and forth to Cuba.”

Curbelo disagrees with President Barack Obama’s renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, saying the move pushed thousands of Cubans to leave the island in the past year, many of them getting stuck in Central America as they tried to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Our Cuba immigration policy is flawed, and the Administration has made matters worse by recognizing the Cuban dictatorship as a legitimate government,” he said in a statement.

South Florida’s powerful Cuban-American community, whose members have benefited directly or indirectly from the law, has long protected the CAA. But Miami’s Cuban Americans began questioning the policy in recent years as Cuban immigration has shifted and become more similar to immigration from other countries. Curbelo pledged to tighten the law in his 2014 campaign; political calls to deal with the CAA only increased after Obama’s policy change a year ago, and after the South Florida Sun-Sentinel documented widespread CAA abuses.

In October, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, told Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4 that, if the law was done away with, “it wouldn’t break my heart.” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, told the Sun-Sentinel in February the CAA is “ripe for reform.” And Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for president, told the Herald in a November statement that Congress should “eliminate the loopholes being exploited by those who abuse U.S. law.”

None want to repeal the law outright, as proposed in October by Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona. That legislation hasn’t gotten traction yet in the House Judiciary Committee.

Speaker Paul Ryan has vowed not to take up immigration legislation, which has harshly divided House Republicans. Curbelo is pitching his legislation as a budgetary bill headed to the House Ways and Means Committee and intended to save the government money. The Congressional Budget Office has yet to issue a savings estimate.