Last month, Cardinal Jaime Ortega reached a deal with Raul Castro and the Cuban government to free 52 political prisoners who have been held since a 2003 government crackdown.  Under the agreement, the released Cubans would go to Spain and receive political asylum.  Twenty have already been freed and left Cuba for Spain, along with more than 100 relatives.  More are expected to travel to Spain over the next few months.


The problem is, many of the Cuban dissidents would prefer to come to the United States, where they have relatives and community ties.  Originally, the political prisoners and their families believed that they could accept exile in Spain and then travel to the United States.  A State Department spokesman last month said that the Cubans would be "absolutely" welcome in the U.S.  Now, however, the State Department has informed dissidents that if they accept exile in Spain (and the legal status that comes with it), they would not be eligible for asylum in the U.S.  Instead, they would have to immigrate based on family or employer petitions, a slow process that may not be available to many of the dissidents.

While such aliens would likely not qualify for asylum in the United States (since they are "firmly resettled" in Spain), they should qualify for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act.  This would require them to arrive in the United States and remain here for one year.  After a year, they could obtain their permanent residency.  Of course, not all of them would be able to come here, but those who want to live in the U.S. at least have a viable option. 

The case of these Cubans raises a broader question about choosing a country to seek refuge.  Many asylum seekers travel through third countries before arriving in the U.S.  Indeed, I have represented some asylum seekers who have traveled across three continents and a dozen countries before they arrive in the U.S.  Why should we allow such people to seek refuge here when they have skipped over other countries where they could live safely?  It's a fair question. 

For me, escaping from persecution is only part of the equation.  People are searching for a safe, stable place to re-start their lives.  They may not find that in a country that does not normally accept immigrants or where they have no friends or family.  Refugees also need community support and jobs.  They may need financial assistance, medical care, and mental health care.  Many countries-including many countries that refugees pass through-cannot offer these types of assistance.  For these reasons, some of the Cuban dissidents would rather remain detained in Cuba (while hoping to come to the U.S.) than relocate to Spain, a country where they have no family members or community support.