WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Marco Rubio called on Wednesday for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuban immigrants, seeking to stop providing refugee benefits to those coming from the island strictly for economic reasons.
"In essence, our existing law treats all Cubans categorically as if they were refugees whether or not they can prove it," the Florida Republican said in a Senate speech.
Currently, all Cubans are eligible for welfare payments and other public assistance during their first five years in the United States. They are the only immigrant group to receive such benefits.
Rubio is the son of immigrants who moved to Florida from Cuba in the 1950s, before the island's Communist revolution that led to a decades-long U.S. trade embargo.
Cuba has come up during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Rubio, a former candidate, staunchly opposes Democratic President Barack Obama's recent moves toward more normal relations with Havana, as does Republican Senator Ted Cruz, also a Cuban-American, who remains in the presidential race.
Rubio filed his legislation as an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization measure being considered by the Senate this week.
Some lawmakers have been demanding a new look at Cuban immigration policy since the surprise December 2014 announcement from Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that the two countries would move toward ending decades of estrangement.
Rubio said the United States spent $680 million in 2014 supporting Cuban migrants, a total that has since grown. Some Cubans who say they are fleeing persecution in their homeland repeatedly return to the island, he said.
"It's difficult to justify someone's refugee status when after arriving in the United States, they are traveling back to the place they are quote/unquote fleeing from 10, 15, 20, 30 times a year," Rubio said.
Rubio said he was not seeking to change the Cuban Adjustment Act, a Cold War-era law allowing Cuban immigrants to enter the United States, or deny refugee benefits to those who deserve them.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)