Immigration rules differ for Cubans, Central Americans, Syrians

Immigration attorney: ‘It's a very dysfunctional system'

SAN ANTONIO – While tens of thousands of Cubans fleeing their Communist nation have arrived at the Laredo port of entry, federal immigration authorities report at least 77 Central American women and children have been sent back to one of most dangerous regions in the world. Syrians have begun arriving in the U.S. but not without being heavily scrutinized for possible terrorist ties.

“It’s a very dysfunctional system,” said Linda Brandmiller, a local immigration attorney. “We are not consistent at all in our policies, laws and regulations.”

“A lot depends on access to counsel, the judge, immigration officials and asylum officers,” she said.

For instance, she said some asylum officers are skilled at getting refugees to explain why they fear being deported, while others only bring them to tears, unable to plead for asylum.

Yet for 50 years, Cubans have been granted automatic asylum once they set foot on U.S. soil. The continued normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations is why many are afraid of losing their special immigration status.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents District 28, which covers part of South Texas, said after only a year, Cubans become legal U.S. residents and naturalized citizens three years after arriving in the U.S.

But Cuellar said he’s among others in Congress supporting HR 4247 that would deny Cuban refugees federal benefits such as food stamps.

“It’s not fair to the taxpayers that somebody just comes in (and) starts getting immediate benefits the moment they cross the bridge,” Cuellar said.

He said given the political climate in Washington, the bill stands a better chance of passing after the presidential election.

Cuellar also questions whether Cubans are being screened at the border.

“They’re supposed to be screened, and I say, supposed to be,” Cuellar said.

Rick Pauza, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Laredo, said in a statement, “CBP officers will process Cuban nationals in accordance with established procedures as expeditiously as possible while maintaining requirements and standards for individuals in our care.”

Cuellar said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told him right before a congressional vote to restrict Syrian refugees' entry, because Johnson couldn't "certify that everybody is not going to be in danger."​

“Then why are we going to let people in?” Cuellar said.

The Democratic congressman also said to maintain “order on the border,” Central American families must be deported to help discourage others from coming.

“I do understand the concerns and that’s why we got to make sure before we deport anybody that they’re given their due process,” Cuellar said.

Brandmiller said the problem with that is most refugees don’t have attorneys to plead their cases.

“They just haven’t had a chance to tell their story,” Brandmiller said.

Cuellar said he realizes immigration courts don’t have federal public defenders.

“Some folks in the majority don’t feel that’s the job of the federal government,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said even so, he’ll see if that’s possible through his membership on the bipartisan House Appropriations Committee.

Brandmiller said the lack of due process “is why we’re calling for an immediate end to deporting in particular, families.”