MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuba's decision this week to make it easier to leave and enter the country is unlikely in the short term to prompt a sudden exodus, but could result in a rethinking of preferential treatment Cuban migrants have long received in the United States.
Alarmed by the number of Cubans arriving in Miami for economic reasons, rather than the political causes that prompted earlier waves of migration from the island, even some Cuban exiles are increasingly questioning a decades-old law that has guaranteed Cubans safe haven in the United States.
The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966 was passed during the Lyndon Johnson administration to adjust the status of some 300,000 Cubans who found themselves in legal limbo after fleeing Cuba's socialist revolution of 1959, arriving in the United States on temporary refugee visas.
The law was unusual, as it did not require the Cubans to make a case for political asylum, and automatically granted them entry and the path to permanent residency.
Nor did it envisage a cut-off date. In those early days, most Cubans - as well as U.S. policy-makers - never imagined the exodus would continue for decades, since they were convinced the communist government led by Fidel Castro would not last.
The law has remained on the books ever since, giving Cubans a uniquely privileged immigration status, rivaled only by Hungarians in 1956.
"In all candor, it's anachronistic. The law really doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense today," said Jose Azel at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
Under new rules announced on Tuesday, Cubans will no longer need to obtain a special exit visa to travel abroad, and will need only a passport.
But most Cubans, who earn barely $25 a month on state salaries, will still face huge financial hurdles in order to travel, and opposition activists may still be banned.
U.S. WATCHING 'FLOW'
U.S. officials say the new Cuban migration rules will not affect existing visa programs for Cubans seeking to travel to the United States.
"I think the question becomes whether more Cubans desire to travel and are applying for visas. ... So obviously, we need to see how it affects the flow of travel," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday.
The United States already accepts about 20,000 Cubans annually via a heavily oversubscribed immigration lottery, as well as thousands more under special programs for family members seeking reunification, and political asylum cases.
But Cuba's new migration rules could result in more Cubans seeking visas to travel to third countries like Mexico or Canada, and then making their way to the United States.
The number of Cubans arriving without visas at U.S. borders and airports has ranged from 4,000 to 5,000 in the past couple of years, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The Miami Herald estimated it rose to 7,400 in the past year.
'I'M A CUBAN'
Under the act, any Cuban who shows up at the U.S. border is automatically allowed entry, and can apply for permanent residency a year later.
"The law doesn't require any declaration of persecution. All you have to say is, 'I'm a Cuban,'" said Lisandro Perez, a Cuba expert at the City University of New York.
The Cuban government has long railed against the 1966 law, saying it entices Cubans to abandon the island and flout immigration laws while also putting their lives at risk as they try to cross the treacherous Florida Straits.
Most countries have stiff visa requirements for Cubans. Ecuador dropped its entrance visa requirement for Cubans in 2008, and has seen the number of arrivals jump to 27,000 in 2011 from 4,700 in 2007, according to the Tourism Ministry.
Mexico was once a popular destination for smugglers transporting Cubans in fast boats because it was close and the government did not send intercepted Cubans back to the island. But in 2008, at the urging of Cuba, Mexico signed an agreement to deport Cubans, which led to a sharp decrease in numbers.
Thousands of Cubans have also obtained Spanish passports in recent years under a law designed to restore citizenship to the descendants of those who fled the country in the 1930s during the Spanish civil war. More than 60,000 passports have been handed out in the past three years, with a total of about 180,000 Cubans estimated to be eligible.
As European Union members, they can enter the United States without a visa, and then claim residency under the Adjustment Act.
"With Cubans free to travel to Mexico and Canada, 'step-across-the-border' economic migration will become a bigger problem," said John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which advocates better U.S.-Cuba relations.
Some older Cuban exiles complain the law is being abused by those who arrived more recently and often travel back to visit friends and relatives, making a mockery of their supposed flight from the perils of communist rule.
A Cuban-American U.S. representative from Miami, David Rivera, filed an amendment to the law earlier this year seeking to strip Cuban exiles of U.S. residency if they return to Cuba to visit relatives.
"The fact that Cubans avail themselves of the Cuban Adjustment Act citing political persecution, and then quickly travel back to the persecuting country, is a clear and blatant abuse of the law," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana and Eduardo Garcia in Quito; Editing by Peter Cooney)