By David Adams and Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - All Ana Soto had to do to gain entry to the United States at the Texas-Mexico border in 2008 was show her Cuban identity card and birth certificate.
Soto has since brought her husband from Cuba, reunited with her parents in Miami and got an accounting job - building a dream life thanks to one of the most generous U.S. immigration laws: the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
"I had no future in Cuba. My life, and my entire family's life has changed for the better thanks to the Adjustment Act," said Soto, 24.
Those who follow in Soto's footsteps may not be so fortunate. As the U.S. Congress takes up immigration reform, the special status of Cuban emigres is being called into question by critics who say the CAA is a costly and anachronistic Cold War relic that should be abolished.
The issue has gained urgency after a relaxing of travel restrictions by both Cuba and the United States that has led to a dramatic increase in the number of Cubans traveling between the two countries. Soto herself has returned to Cuba a dozen times, on the last occasion to visit her dying grandmother.
Last month Cuba ended its practice of requiring an exit permit to leave the island, and said all Cubans could obtain a passport, potentially increasing the exodus.
Even traditional defenders of the CAA in the nation's large Cuban American community, concentrated mostly in South Florida, say the law is out-dated and may need adjusting.
"I'm not sure we're going to be able to avoid, as part of any comprehensive approach to immigration, a conversation about the Cuban Adjustment Act," Florida's Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, told reporters last month.
Rubio, one of eight senators pushing for bipartisan immigration reform, said the CAA was intended to protect refugees fleeing an oppressive regime but an increasing number of Cuban exiles were traveling to and from Cuba on family vacations and business trips, undermining the justification for the act.
"It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify it to my colleagues," said Rubio.
Cuban immigrants are just a sliver of the roughly one million foreign-born nationals who become legal permanent U.S. residents each year and their fate might seem small compared to the 11 million estimated to be in the United States illegally. But as a touchstone of American freedom, they play an outsized role in the nation's politics.
As such, the CAA is unlikely to be thrown out entirely, analysts say, but it could well be tightened to limit eligibility to genuine victims of political persecution in Cuba.
"There is going to be a discussion and there are going to be changes, but how far they will go nobody knows," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "There is no reason now for Cubans to have preference in the immigration line," he added.
The reform could also mark the end of the controversial 'wet foot, dry foot' policy, coined after the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis, that allows entry to undocumented Cubans who reach U.S. soil ('dry foot') either by home-made rafts or smuggler 'go-fast' boats, as well as thousands who show up each year at the Mexico border. Others intercepted at sea ('wet foot') are repatriated.
Cuban immigration has become a deeply divisive issue in Miami's exile community in recent years. Unlike older exiles who left Cuba in the 1960s with their entire families and vow never to return until the ruling Communist Party is ousted, newer arrivals in Miami retain close family ties on the island.
"It's not an exile community anymore," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia thinktank.
Around 327,000 Cubans have emigrated to the United States in the last 10 years, more than in any previous decade since Cuba's 1959 revolution, Peters said.
A survey of visa applicants in 2009 by the State Department, which was published by Wikileaks, noted: "Overwhelmingly, applicants appear motivated to leave Cuba due to economic and family reasons."
Travel restrictions are now so loose that a top Cuban baseball pitcher, Jose Contreras, recently visited the island without incident. A decade earlier he was excoriated as a mercenary by Communist officials for defecting from Cuba's national team and signing with the New York Yankees for $32 million.
An estimated 476,000 Cuban Americans visited the island last year according to a Miami consumer research firm, The Havana Consulting Group. That was more than double the number in 2007.
Under the CAA, Cubans receive unique and highly favorable treatment, including granting of permanent residency a year after arrival, as well as being eligible for government benefits, such as Medicaid, supplemental social security income, child care, and disability.
No other foreign nationals enjoy these benefits except for the few who are granted political asylum.
The CAA was passed in 1966 to adjust the status of some 300,000 Cubans who found themselves in legal limbo after fleeing Cuba's socialist revolution of 1959. Cuba has railed against it.
These days an average of about 36,000-40,000 Cubans arrive each year. Many are selected by a visa lottery, others come under a family reunification program and there are a handful of political asylum cases. Roughly 10,000 arrive without visas each year, smuggled by boat or via the border with Mexico.
Being Cuban is so advantageous it has spawned its own form of identity fraud. Last year federal agents busted a ring that sold almost 50 fake Cuban birth certificates for up to $15,000 apiece to undocumented immigrants from Latin America so they could obtain green cards.
THE BENEFITS OF BEING CUBAN
According to an estimate by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, the cost of public benefits provided to Cuban immigrants was $322 million in 2008.
"Everybody knows they are economic refugees and have been for a long time," said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, a Miami travel agency that books flights to Cuba.
"We cannot keep giving all the benefits to people coming from Cuba who have not paid a penny into the system, especially at a time when Congress is talking about taking benefits from people who have been paying into the system for years," added Mannerud, who is of Cuban descent.
Support for the CAA is still strong among many exiles who say the conditions that led to the CAA in the first place, including repression in Cuba, still exist.
Even though many newer exiles may be economic migrants "the economy is part of politics in Cuba," said Humberto Rodriguez, 67, who came to Miami from Cuba in 1983 and operates a one-man home repair business. "The Cuban economy is a product of the communist political system, so everyone is persecuted in that sense," he said.
Immigration experts note that if that were the definition of political asylum, rather than specific persecution for political or religious beliefs, residents of any poor, misgoverned country would be eligible.
Soto is rooting for the CAA to survive. "I have to think of all the other people in Cuba who deserve the same opportunity that I had," she said.
Like many young Cubans, she left Cuba because she saw no professional future for herself in the communist system after she graduated. Her father, 49, a skilled English-speaking mechanical engineer, was working in Cuba's black market doing odd jobs as a carpenter to make ends meet. In Miami, he quickly found a job as a supervisor in an auto parts factory.
"He's so happy now," she said.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana; Editing by Mary Milliken and Claudia Parsons)