A holiday jump in the number of Cubans coming to the U.S., along with efforts to change the U.S.-Cuba relationship, have renewed focus on laws that give special treatment to Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil.
The numbers taking to the sea have since dropped, helped by stormy winter weather and a U.S. campaign to quell rumors that it planned to end its policy of allowing Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain here.
But with a fight in Congress over immigration reform that is holding up funding of the Department of Homeland Security and continued negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba, the disparity in treatment for Cubans versus other migrants who come to the U.S. without legal authorization, is drawing criticism.
The Miami-Dade County Commission voted this month to ask Congress to revise the law.
Bruno Barreiro, who sponsored that resolution, questioned how a person claiming to be politically persecuted, could come to the U.S. and get protection and then travel back to Cuba, the New York Times reported.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said he wants to change the law to only protect Cubans who come to the U.S. seeking protection from the Castro government.
“The president’s actions on Cuba have severely undermined the law because he has essentially recognized the Cuban government as legitimate,” Curbelo told the Times.
Cuba had asked that the U.S. rescind its protection for Cuban migrants – under the Cuban Adjustment Act and its so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy – when it opened negotiations last month over the changes in the countries' relationship. The U.S. refused.
Unlike other migrants who come to the U.S. without legal authorization, Cubans who make it here are are allowed to remain. Under the Cuban Adjusment Act, after one year, the Cuban migrants can apply for a green card for legal residency, which is a first step to citizenship.
“I consider the (U.S.) law to be unjust because it provokes illegal, dangerous departures. As the (Cuban) government says, the U.S. should get rid of it.” --Jorge Ramirez, Havana.
Changing the law would run into difficult opposition from some Cuban Americans in Congress who have been critical of any easing of laws isolating Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., planned to hold a hearing Tuesday on the president's normalization efforts. Witnesses include Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs who led the recent talks between the U.S. and Cuba in Havana. He has made previous statements questioning whether the special treatment can be justified if the U.S. now considers Cuba to have a legitimate form of government.
Cristina Echevarría, 26, a student in Cuba, told NBC News on Monday that rumors of an end to the policy still are being heard and it is making people think they need to hurry up and leave for Mexico and try to get to the U.S.
Interviews with other Havana residents showed a split on the U.S. law.
Jorge Ramirez, 57, said he’s not thinking of leaving. “I consider the (U.S.) law to be unjust because it provokes illegal, dangerous departures. As the (Cuban) government says, the U.S. should get rid of it,” said Ramirez, a parking attendant.
Gilberto, a 32-year-old auto mechanic who would only give his first name, said he plans to leave “and of course I’m against them taking away the law because it’s one more option a person has and also, because gives (to us Cubans) benefits. Many of us think the same.”
The Coast Guard told NBC News in mid-December it was seeing a spike in Cubans trying to sail to the U.S. just after President Barack Obama announced steps for improving U.S.-Cuba relations.
But even before the Obama made the announcement, the Coast Guard had told NBC News there was a measurable uptick in traffic at sea. The Department of Homeland Security also had recorded a high number of Cuban migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma said the traffic has dropped to what would normally be seen at this time of year. There has been a steady increase since 2012 in Cuban interdictions (those intercepted at sea), landings (those who make it to U.S. soil) and disruptions (those who turn around and go back witnessed by the Coast Guard.)
The total Cubans in those three categories was 3,940 last year, up from 2,129 in 2013 and 1,870 in 2012. But that is far lower than the more than 7,000 a year totals in 2005-2007, Somma said.
Customs and Border Protection reported that from October through December of last year, 6,489 Cubans were processed by the Southwest Office of Field Operations. Another 2,135 were processed by the Mimi Field Office over the same period. That compares to 4,328 processed in the Southwest field office and 893 in Miami, during the final three months of 2013.
The Border Patrol apprehended 43 Cubans in the last three months of 2014, up from 19 for the same period in 2013. January numbers were not yet available.
If a Cuban expresses fear of returning to Cuba or the country where the individual last lived, he or she is "inspected," and "paroled" or released into the country. Authorities do a background check for criminal or previous immigration violations.
The migration increase around misinformation recalls the mass migration of tens of thousands of children to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico last spring and summer. Children and families fled their violent countries amid rumors that once in, they’d be allowed to stay and that they had to make it in by midsummer.
The mass migration led DHS officials to create emergency shelters around the country and eventually open new detention centers in Texas to house women and children. Republicans blamed Obama’s then-pending executive action on immigration and calls were made for a change in the law protecting unaccompanied children who arrive at U.S. borders and are not from Mexico or Canada.
The president also asked Congress for $1 billion in his budget released Monday, essentially a wish list, to help Central American countries curb violence and make reforms to prevent children and families from fleeing. The amount is triple what the U.S. has provided the region previously, Vice President Joe Biden said over the weekend.
The Cuba numbers are smaller, but the administration has said clearly it is not changing the Cuba Adjustment Act.
“Current immigration policy and law concerning Cuba will remain for the time being,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in December. “It is important, however, to stress this new policy and this new approach should not encourage future illegal migration … Our borders should not be open to illegal migration.”
In Havana, Rosa Gutiérrez, 50, seemed willing to wait out the U.S.-Cuba negotiations.
“They should come to agreement to see if things improve and then people can calm down with the salidera (leaving the island),” Gutiérrez said.
NBC's Mark Potter and Orlando Matos from Havana contributed to this report.