Today, I got word that a close Cuban friend of mine was denied a visa to travel to the US this summer. A student at the University of Havana, she had received a grant and an invitation to intern at a policy group in Washington, DC. She was interviewed at the US Embassy today. The whole thing lasted less than one minute. I was in class when my phone lit up.
"No me aprobaron la visa." (They didn't approve the visa).
"No me dijeron." (They didn't tell me).
Just like that.
Today, just like every day, hundreds of Cubans will be denied visas to enter the United States. After paying a visa fee which amounts to five times the monthly salary of the average Cuban. After following the proper procedures and somehow acquiring enough funds through either black market magic or friends and family in Miami. After jumping through hoops, meeting with unhelpful bureaucrats, and waiting for hours in long lines.
No -- this isn't a Cuban process I'm speaking of. This is 100% American -- a part of a system we so proudly tout as superior to our Caribbean neighbor ninety miles away.
It is no secret that our nation's immigration system is broken, especially in regards to immigrants from developing countries. The law is simply stacked against all persons hoping to travel to the United States from a developing nation. The extent of the damage this manifest in our immigration policy towards Cuba -- where it is nearly impossible to obtain a nonimmigrant visa as a Cuban.
Thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 and the "wet-foot dry-foot" policy, Cubans who do reach Miami Beach are able to apply to become US citizens after one year. However, we deny nearly all Cubans who apply for a nonimmigrant visa through legal means. Our system encourages dangerous and illegal emigration. It's ironic and undemocratic.
Cubans are denied US visas at a higher rate than the rate of any other country in the world. (76.03%) I realize this a given, but for emphasis, here's a short list of countries with more lenient nonimmigrant visa processes: Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and North Korea.
Technically, Cubans are denied for two reasons, both are parts of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. The act was passed in the McCarthy era during the second Red Scare in the United States and it upheld the discriminatory national origins quota system. President Truman vetoed the act, but was overridden. In June of 1952, the President explained his opposition to the bill:
"In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration," he said. Furthermore: "The time to shake off this dead weight of past mistakes is now. The time to develop a decent policy of immigration--a fitting instrument for our foreign policy and a true reflection of the ideals we stand for, at home and abroad--is now."
The bill passed. In 2016, the most important clause of the Immigration and Nationality Act for travellers from developing countries is section 214(b). It states that applicants can be denied because they are presumed to be "intending immigrants" to the United States. This means the law presumes every visa applicant seeks to emigrate to the US, unless strong evidence is presented on the contrary.
Given that Cubans have access to an expedited citizenship process offered to no other non-refugee immigrant group, it should come as no surprise that Cuban applicants are considered "potential immigrants" at higher rates than every other immigrant group.
However, if Cubans are willing to risk their lives, if they're willing to leave everything they know behind, and if they are capable of building a strong raft, they would be able to become US citizens in one year's time. If they make it, that is. If not, they'll either be rounded up by the Coast Guard and thrown into jail in Cuba, or, as is quite common, they will lose their lives at sea. The policy is inhumane.
So: the US encourages Cubans to defect through its enticing policy of expedited citizenship for Cubans who reach US soil, but denies Cubans who attempt to visit our country through legal means. The policy prevents Cubans from travelling to or studying in the US -- a place where most have family, ties, and interests. Imagine receiving an internship and a grant to work in Washington, DC as a Cuban college student, and getting denied. In thirty seconds. Imagine hoping to visit your daughter who just had a baby in Miami. Denied. By the government of the United States.
There is no appeals process for a denial based on 214(b) section. Here is a snippet from an official email I received from the US State Department when I inquired about the process:
Unfortunately, we are unable to provide specific guidance about how an applicant may overcome 214(b) since there is no particular piece of evidence or information that will lead a consular officer to approve or deny a nonimmigrant visa case.
No, that is not a joke. There is no official process for the approval or denial of a visa.
Meanwhile, in the past four weeks, 269 Cubans have been "caught" at sea by the US Coast Guard to be sent back to Cuba, and at least ten migrants have lost their lives. In FY 2015, the US Coast Guard intercepted 4,462 Cubans in the waters between Havana and Miami.
Alexis Gonzalez, a Cuban electrician, commented on the process back in 2004: "Three things can happen to you when you take to the ocean," said Gonzalez, "You can die. You can make it there, or you can get caught and returned." Our policy encourages this gamble.
I understand the need to protect our borders. But the stark difference between our policy in Cuba and our policy everywhere else forces me to believe that our policy is driven by old-school politics, inertia, or a simple inability to adapt to a new reality.
It is all too clear our Cuba policy is outdated. But even outdated policies should have a rationale. Are we trying to encourage Cubans to leave illegally? To stay? Are we trying to make Cubans suffer? To revolt? Defect? I can't figure it out. Whatever our goal, it's not working. And it's hurting the Cuban people.