For Proof the DREAM Act’s a Good Idea, Look at Cuban Americans

We've thrived thanks to an immigration policy that makes anything on the table now seem downright draconian.

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Dec 08, 2010

Ever since the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans who have made it the United States have been put on an automatic path to citizenship. Cubans in the U.S. have reaped the benefits of this special status, my family included. My parents came to the U.S. with their families as pre-teens in the first wave of exiles from Cuba. Their respective families had different motivations for coming, but both were fleeing the new Castro government and its intrusion in their lives and their businesses. What for them, as for many who came over in the original wave, was meant to be a temporary visit until Castro was defeated, has become a multi-generation resettlement. I was born here, along with some other 652,000 Cuban-Americans, all of us with the advantage of parents who have been able to work and live legally since day one. It’s virtually impossible to be an undocumented Cuban in the United States.

In today’s immigration climate, and particularly during the debate happening right now on the DREAM Act, it’s hard to imagine legislation as generous as our long-standing policy toward Cubans in the United States. Conservatives have tried to paint the DREAM Act as some sort of amnesty. In reality, the DREAM Act is an extremely narrow piece of legislation offering a select group of youth a long and challenging path to citizenship. When compared to the policy that allowed my parents to come to the U.S,, it looks positively draconian. 

The DREAM Act includes a path to citizenship, but the current version also includes a 10-year probationary period and required military service or college attendance. In the most recent iteration of the bill, it also prohibits DREAMers from accessing health care benefits during that time. Cubans had (and have) none of these restrictions, and are able to become legal permanent residents within one year of being in the U.S. and citizens five years later.

U.S. immigration policy toward Cubans has been an extremely good thing for the Cuban-American community and should be a model for immigration policy toward other immigrant groups as well. Statistics show what a boon this special status has been for Cubans in the U.S. The fourth largest Latino group in the U.S., we outperform all other Latino groups in basically every category linked to economic status, according to data from the Pew Hispanic Center. Cubans are almost twice as likely as other Latinos to have a college degree (25 percent as opposed to 12.9 percent). Cubans have a median income that is $5,000 higher than other Latino groups. Only 13.2 percent of Cubans are living in poverty, as opposed to 20.7 percent of other Latinos. The list goes on. Based on 2008 census data, in homeownership, employment rates, number of insured, across the board Cuban Americans do better than all other Latino groups.

It would be overly simplistic to claim that Cubans in the U.S. have thrived simply because of their path to citizenship. Race and class inevitably play a factor in these differences as well. Whereas the overwhelming majority of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. are driven by economic motivations, Cubans have had a strong political motivation, in response to the Communist leanings of the Castro government and his Cuban revolution. This shaped significantly who left Cuba, particularly in the initial wave of immigration in the 1960s. Cubans who came then were more likely to be well-educated professionals, some with significant access to resources, but all with skills and education that enabled them to establish businesses and careers in the U.S.

But Cubans also received significant assistance from the federal government, which provided not only special immigration status but also low-interest loans for small businesses and education, access to public programs like welfare and Medicaid, and even low-cost English language classes. Again, against the backdrop of today’s anti-immigrant climate it’s hard to image such a generous policy toward immigrants having any chance of making it through Congress now.

Cubans are also more likely than other Latino groups to identify as white. According to a Pew analysis of 2004 Census data, 86 percent of Cubans identified as white, as opposed to 60 percent of Mexicans and 50 percent of Puerto Ricans. Whether all of these Latinos who are self-identifying as white are actually seen as such by the general public is impossible to know. (Some of this also must be attributed to the oddly-defined Census categories, which give Hispanics a less than representative list of races from which to choose.) But Pew still found that there were education and income differences for those Latinos who self-identified as white. "Hispanics who identify themselves as white have higher levels of education and income than those who choose ‘some other race.’ " This self-definition seems to have its limits in terms of impact on achievement levels though, as Cubans still under-perform economically when compared to non-Hispanic whites in the U.S.

While Cuban exiles in the U.S. have had many advantages, it’s also important to recognize that most of them came here with little of the wealth or property they’d accrued in Cuba. Some left it behind thinking it was just a temporary stay, others were forced to leave their assets and property behind in return for permission to leave the island. By the time my maternal grandparents came to the U.S. in 1962, they were allowed to bring only three changes of clothing each. Some Cubans may have had money in bank accounts in Miami, or figured out ways to smuggle valuables or cash out. But the vast majority who came initially (and almost everyone who has come since) arrived empty-handed. What they did bring, however, is a crucial combination of skills, education and immigration status that have been central to Cuban success.

This success has been mostly ignored in the immigration debate–despite the fact that it could be a key argument in support of a path to citizenship in immigration reform. The economic success of Cubans hasn’t just benefited those of us in the Cuban-American community; it has benefited the U.S. as a whole. Lower rates of poverty, higher rates of education and the ability to work and, of course, pay taxes (not just sales tax, but income and property taxes as well) means good things for the U.S. overall. Cuban Americans are proof positive of what an immigrant group can achieve when given a path to citizenship.

What is so incredible about this policy toward Cubans is that it has endured half a century and some 10 Presidents, including some of our most conservative in recent memory. It is unlikely that this policy towards Cubans was prompted solely by feelings of good will toward the Cuban people. The policy was a Cold War-era attempt (along with the long-standing Cuban embargo) at fighting against Communism and Castro. The conservative support for this policy is representative of the endurance of anti-Castro policies, as well as the unusual relationship between the Cuban-American community and the Republican Party, a relationship forged after John F. Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion. 

Whatever drove the policy in Washington, what’s significant is its outcome. Whereas immigrants today are faced with countless roadblocks to success even when they are documented, Cubans have been given every type of assistance necessary to guarantee our success. And it’s worked.

Congress now has an opportunity to grant these same rights to another immigrant group–the DREAMers, young people raised in the U.S. without documents. If the DREAM Act is passed, these young people will have to jump through hoops that the Cubans never did, but they’ll also reap the benefits of joining the ranks of documented immigrants. Even conservatives should agree that having an immigrant population in the U.S. that is out of poverty and into the workforce is a key driver toward economic success for the entire nation.