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Unlike other groups of refugees or immigrants, Cubans who reach American soil are automatically accepted into the country; within one year, they are guaranteed permanent residency.

Cubans' immigration status inseparable from politics 

Since 1983, the United States has resettled more than 2 million of the world's refugees. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, one in seven—about 300,000—have arrived from Cuba. Between 1983 and 2006, the U.S. resettled eight times as many Cuban as Haitian refugees (PDF, 3.1 MB). The inequity has little to do with geography or levels of state-sponsored repression. The U.S. hasn't accepted a Mexican refugee since the ORR began keeping track in 1983; last year, the U.S. accepted just 37 refugees from North Korea, according to State Department figures. A long history of U.S. involvement in the island—and of Cubans fleeing, by any means, to America—has led the U.S. to grant Cuban émigrés a status with no global equivalent. Unlike other groups of refugees or immigrants, Cubans who reach American soil are automatically accepted into the country; within one year, they are guaranteed permanent residency. Effectively, everyone who leaves Cuba for the U.S. is considered to be a refugee and is allowed to stay indefinitely.

In 1980, a special category of "non-refugee entrants" included 125,000 exiles who arrived from the Cuban port of Mariel, following a stand-down between President Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro. By contrast, out of tens of thousands of Haitians who arrived on boats and rafts between 1970 and 1980, only 250 were granted asylum.

The Cuban government has referred to the U.S. policy as "migration aggression," because it encourages Cubans to escape by extraordinary means while limiting the number of legal immigrants and refugees who could arrive safely. After several thousand rafters attempted to reach the U.S. in the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton established the "wet foot/dry foot" policy, which accepts Cubans who reach American soil, but returns exiles found at sea.

In the lead-up to the Summit of the Americas last April, President Obama announced he would curtail limits on Cubans who wish to visit, and send money to, relatives on the island. More recently, he indicated a willingness to restart high-level migration talks between Washington and Havana, previously canceled by President George W. Bush. Last week, Cuba responded that it welcomed resumption of the dialogue.

Louis A. Perez Jr., a UNC-Chapel Hill history professor, says Obama's overtures represent a good "first step," but don't concretely change foreign policy. (The travel restrictions, he notes, reflect a U.S. contraint on its own citizens, and are unprecedented in U.S. law.)

However, there is a possibility for a thaw, Perez says. "For the first time since the early '60s, we have a debate on Cuba."

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