Congressman Vern Buchanan

Representing the 16th District of Florida

Buchanan: End Welfare Fraud by Cuban Immigrants

Jun 6, 2016
Press Release
Cubans Get Automatic Benefits No Questions Asked

"This is Why America is $19 Trillion in Debt"

WASHINGTON – Citing disturbing new reports of fraud by Cuban immigrants claiming welfare benefits and then returning to their country, Congressman Vern Buchanan today called for passage of legislation to end this flagrant abuse.

As chairman of a key House panel with jurisdiction over the issue, Buchanan is pushing for expedited approval of the Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act, a bill he has co-sponsored.

The bill will save American taxpayers $2.45 billion over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Buchanan said the legislation, introduced by Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-FL, would end a decades-old policy allowing Cuban immigrants – and only Cuban immigrants – to be eligible automatically for refugee assistance programs. Refugees from other nations must prove their refugee status before becoming eligible.

The bill has unanimous support among the Cuban-American members of Congress. Identical legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

The Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act would treat Cuban immigrants like every other refugee population by making them file a refugee or asylum claim before qualifying for public assistance.

While initially intended to help Cubans fleeing persecution, recent reports have found the program is rife with fraud – even allowing individuals to collect benefits while still living in Cuba. 

“This is why America is $19 trillion in debt," Buchanan said. "We have to terminate waste and fraud like this whenever we can." The House bill is pending in the Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee, which Buchanan chairs. Buchanan said he has asked leadership to bring the bill straight to the floor for a vote this month.

“Cuba is the only country whose citizens can get into America and immediately qualify for public welfare," Buchanan noted. "It needs to end." 

Under current law, Cubans are presumed to be eligible for public assistance under the federal Refugee Resettlement Program as soon as they step foot on American soil. This assistance includes welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and cash assistance in some cases.

In order to qualify as a refugee, a person must meet a number of standards and demonstrate that they were persecuted or fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or because of their membership to a particular social group.

More than 329,000 Cuban immigrants have arrived in Florida and qualified for federal assistance since 2003. In fact, the vast majority of all Cuban immigrants, about 77 percent, have settled in Florida alone.  

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel published an investigative report exposing the flaws in the existing program. Many Cubans entered the U.S. to collect federal welfare benefits only to return to Cuba with their pockets newly enriched by the American taxpayer. The Sun-Sentinel report estimated that $680 million per year is being spent on assistance to Cuban immigrants.

According to the Sun-Sentinel’s research, one woman admitted that her grandmother and two great aunts came to Florida, got approved for benefits and opened up bank accounts before returning to Cuba. And when questioned by a welfare agency, she said that her grandmother refused to come back because, “with the money you sent me, I bought a home and am really happy in Cuba.”

Buchanan said, "It’s unfair to the truly vulnerable for taxpayers to foot the bill for this program."

The need to combat this blatant misuse of federal funds has become even more urgent in recent weeks due to a massive surge in the number of Cubans that have migrated to the U.S. since President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba last year.

Since October, more than 36,500 Cubans have arrived in the United States, according to CNN. One factor driving this surge is the fear that the special benefits migrants from the island receive will disappear as relations between our countries improve. The rush to leave has led to the highest number of people trying to make the dangerous sea crossing in the past eight years, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The bill would not affect Cubans already living in the United States.