This morning the Cuban government announced reforms of its 52 year old travel ban. In mid-January, the Cuban government will cease requiring exit visas and invitations from foreign nationals so Cubans can leave. It’s unclear how the new plan will be applied in practice. The Cuban government’s announcement might not be as welcome as people hope, but this is a substantial change in rhetoric. My colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo wrote about how such an approach would affect Cubans here.
Assuming the travel ban is mostly or entirely lifted, this policy change will also affect Americans in numerous ways.
First, the United States has a unique immigration policy for Cubans. Known as the “wet foot/dry foot policy,” if a Cuban reaches American soil he or she is allowed to gain permanent residency within a year. If a Cuban is captured at sea, he or she is returned to Cuba unless they cite fears of persecution. This means that most Cubans who want to leave, with the exception of violent or other criminal offenders, will be able to stay in the United States if they are able to make it to American soil. No other nationality in nearly a century, except the Hungarians in the 1950s, has been subject to such a generous policy.
Because of their unique legal-immigration status, the Cuban-born population living in the United States was excluded from estimates of unauthorized immigrants and very few of them are likely in violation of any immigration laws.
Second, the United States is the number one destination abroad for Cubans. Additionally, nearly 60 percent of Cuban-Americans were born abroad compared to less than 40 percent for all other Hispanic groups. Cubans tend to be older, more likely to own homes and businesses, more geographically concentrated in Florida, more educated, wealthier, and have fewer children than other Hispanic immigrant groups. They are overwhelmingly positive for the American economy.
Third, Florida has been the main destination and beneficiary of Cuban immigration since the 19th century century. Ybor City, a section of Tampa, owes its birth and development to Cuban and Spanish-born entrepreneurs like Ignacio Haya and Vincente Martinez Ybor who made the city a cigar manufacturing powerhouse by the early 20th century. For generations, Ybor City was known as “Little Havana.”
In addition to the tobacco trade, Cuban-American entrepreneurs in Ybor City also specialized in legal services, accounting offices, real estate development companies, and advertising. Restaurants have probably had the biggest impact on the habits of Americans. The Columbia Restaurant, currently Florida’s oldest restaurant, was opened by Cuban- born Casimiro Hernandez in 1905. It started as a small corner cafe serving authentic Cuban sandwiches and café con leche and has since expanded to seven other locations.
The situation was similar in Miami where Cubans excelled at opening small businesses and revitalizing large sections of the city that had begun to decay. Ever since the earliest Cubans came to America, they haven’t wasted any time in their pursuit of the American dream.
Fourth, Cuban immigration to Florida has not lowered the wages for Americans working there. According to an authoritative peer-reviewed paper written by Berkeley labor economist David Card, the sudden immigration of 125,000 Cubans on the famed Mariel boatlift in 1980 increased the size of Miami’s total labor market by 7 percent and the size of its Cuban workforce by 20 percent.
For non-Cubans in Miami with similar skills, wages were remarkably stable from about 1979-1985. A massive and sudden increase in labor supply did not lower wages for Americans or increase their unemployment. Miami businesses rapidly expanded production to account for the influx of new consumers and workers and Cuban immigrants started businesses with a gusto, thus creating their own employment opportunities.
Cuba’s reform of the travel ban could reignite Cuban immigration. In 2011, roughly 40,000 Cubans gained legal permanent residency and refugee status in the United States. That number could increase dramatically if the Cuban government truly got out of the way and let its people move toward relative freedom and economic opportunity.
Beginning in mid-January, assuming U.S. policy does not change (an unlikely scenario given that neither political party wants to upset the politically influential Cuban community in South Florida), we could witness a large new wave of Cuban immigration to the United States.
Despite entertaining movies like Scarface, the long run consequences of the Marial boatlift have been good for Americans, Cuban immigrants, and Florida. Cuban-Americans reveal a pattern of success and achievement similar to other contemporary immigrant groups and those in our country’s past. Immigrants are more successful in the United States than their former countrymen left behind. American capitalist institutions are the main cause of this, but it’s also because immigrants are overwhelmingly committed to economic advancement and the hard work that takes.
If Cuba truly lifts the travel ban, it will be a blessing for all Cubans. Many of them will likely immigrate to the United States, which will also be good for us.