Immigration Policies a Vestige of the Cold War
While diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States are normalizing, some policies between the two countries remain anchored in the past. Susan Eckstein’63, a scholar and professor at Boston University, argues that U.S.-Cuban immigration policies are not only outdated, but also unfair.
In fact, the twists and turns of the United States’ approach to Cuban immigration are rooted in the turmoil of the Cold War.
When the Cuban Revolution began in the late 1950s, President Eisenhower
invoked a parole for asylum seekers to evade normal immigration restrictions. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson continued to welcome refugees, culminating in the creation of the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966, which grants permanent residency to any native or citizen of the country who has been granted entry into the United States after January 1, 1959. The act gives Cuban immigrants who make it to the United States without authorization access to multiple programs and a path to citizenship. Their relatives are also eligible for easy entry status.
“The Adjustment Act is a key privilege,” explains Eckstein.
For the past five decades, this one-of-a-kind system has been a crucial plot twist in the story of Cuban-American relations. The ethical considerations these policies embody are driving Eckstein’s research.
Eckstein teaches international relations and sociology and is a successful bilingual author, having published two books in Spanish and four in English, as well as seven dozen articles. She has also edited and/or co-edited four other books in English.
Beloit was where she laid much of this foundation. In addition to receiving a broad liberal arts education and a “critical and empathic outlook,” Eckstein says she was able to explore her pre-existing intellectual interests.
“My work in anthropology [with Professor Andrew Whiteford] solidified an earlier interest that I had in Latin America,” she explains. As a sociology major, she learned about poverty and inequality from the legendary professor Donald “Doc” Summers, which, combined with her interest in Latin America, set her on an evolving career path. Her dissertation at Columbia University focused on Mexico’s urban poor, which segued into an exploration of social upheaval on a larger scale. While Mexico was her original area of focus, she also studied social movements in Bolivia and Cuba. When her interests shifted to immigration policy, a closer focus on the latter country was a natural transition.
Eckstein says that U.S. policy regarding Cuban immigration has remained in place for decades due in large part to political nuances. While the Cuban population makes up less than 1 percent of the demographic in the United States, the majority reside in Florida—a crucial swing state with tremendous bipartisan interest—where they make up 8 percent of the voting population. Additionally, several of the state’s legislators are Cuban-American, including former GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Meanwhile, the nature of Cuban immigration itself has shifted. The original refugees, who referred to themselves as “exiles,” were part of Cuba’s intellectual and economic elite. Disillusioned with Castro’s regime, they actively supported the embargo, and generally distanced themselves from their native country. In contrast, today’s immigrants are significantly poorer, and have brought new perspectives and priorities to the table. “They had very different lived experiences in Cuba,” Eckstein explains, adding that the focus is no longer explicitly on defying Castroism. “They want to help their families. They’re more pragmatic … ironically, in the process of doing that, they’re changing Cuba.”
With the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump, Eckstein theorizes that the paradigm could shift once again. She proposes that the Cuban Adjustment Act may end under the new primarily conservative government in large part because Cuban-American legislators—all of whom are Republican—clash ideologically with the “New Cubans” who arrived in the country after the Cold War.
“The New Cubans think and act like other immigrants, wanting to send remittances to help family in their homeland and wanting to visit them,” she explains. “Cuban-American politicians come from families that fled Cuba immediately after the revolution. They are anti-Castro, which includes opposition to Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and the country’s current leader, and advocate an embargo of Cuba, including at the people-to-people level.”
The issue may be complicated further by the elder Castro’s passing. While his influence has diminished significantly over the last decade, Eckstein speculates that his death—and the symbolic passing of an era that it represents—could still spur increased immigration from Cuba in an attempt to take advantage of the lax laws while they are still in place.
Eckstein’s visits to the country, which began in 1990, have been less about obtaining hard data and more about “gaining a sensibility” of the place and its people. Since the borders reopened to the United States in 2014, she’s noted a change in the outlook of citizens, particularly raised expectations of improvements that have yet to materialize.
Despite her long-held interest in the nation, Eckstein is vehemently opposed to Cuba’s privileged immigration position, especially given the struggles of most other immigrants to the United States. “There’s no justification for Cubans getting privileges that people from other countries don’t have,” she argues, citing Haiti as one of the many similarly situated countries whose refugees do not receive preferential treatment. She adds that the justifications spawned in the Cold War are no longer valid, and that the laws are now maintained solely for the sake of political influence.
Ultimately, her goal in researching and writing about the topic is to increase awareness of the imbalance.
“Reform is designed to make our immigration system more equitable,” she explains. “We claim ourselves as an egalitarian country, and yet we treat foreigners differently.”