U.S. tweaks Cuba immigration policy

August 12, 2006

Miami Herald- Alfonso Chardy

U.S. tweaks Cuba policy

The Bush administration unveiled its much-anticipated new immigration policy toward Cuba on Friday, quickening backlogged family visas, offering Cuban doctors who defect abroad easier access to the United States and denying visas to human rights violators.

The government also pledged to alert exile families if relatives have been stopped at sea during interdiction operations -- often a major source of anguish for families who receive little or no information about loved ones held on Coast Guard cutters.

The measures, contained in two separate written statements issued in Washington by the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, are the first concrete steps by the U.S. government toward Cuba since Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raúl, on July 31.

They also constitute the first major modifications in how the Cuba-U.S. migration accords are administered since the deal was brokered in 1994 as a way to end a rafter exodus. Under the accords, Cuba agreed to restrict illegal departures in exchange for about 20,000 annual visas for Cubans wishing to emigrate to the United States. Repatriation of Cuban migrants interdicted at sea began in 1995.

Homeland Security unveiled the new measures on a day when U.S. Commerce Secretary Cárlos M. Gutierrez, a Cuban American, flew to Miami to tour a U.S. Agency for International Development warehouse in South Florida. The warehouse was stocked with supplies such as food and 'hygiene products,' Gutierrez said during a meeting with The Miami Herald editorial board. Gutierrez said AID officials told him they could deliver the products to Cuba in four to six hours -- but only if aid is requested by Cubans once the Castro brothers are no longer in power.

LONG DISCUSSION

U.S. officials have said the new immigration measures are the result of many months of discussion and not a direct response to the leadership change in Havana.

Nevertheless, a senior Homeland Security official suggested that the U.S. government is concerned about the possibility of a chaotic exodus from Cuba.

'We urge the Cuban people to stay on the island, so that they may work for their freedom and a democratic society,' Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson said in the written statement issued late Friday. ``We discourage anyone from risking their life in the open seas in order to travel to the United States.'

The agency also pledged to work with Congress to toughen penalties for migrant smugglers.

South Florida's three Republican Cuban-American congressional representatives -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart -- welcomed the new measures, reserving their biggest praise for the offer to make it easier for Cuban doctors to enter United States.

The three lawmakers lauded ``the Bush administration's announcement to allow doctors and other medical professionals, who have been sent abroad by the Cuban dictatorship, the possibility to immigrate to the United States.'

It has been difficult for Cuban doctors who defect in other countries to obtain U.S. visas because in many cases they are considered to be living in those countries and therefore have fewer rights to request U.S. protection. Tens of thousands of Cuban medical personnel are working abroad in dozens of countries -- about 20,000 in Venezuela alone -- and an estimated 500 have defected in recent years.

Perhaps the most important measure is the decision to parole into the United States thousands more Cubans with close relatives here, thus reducing a backlog in family-based immigrant visas. While Homeland Security did not say how big the backlog is, it's said to be in the thousands.

Currently, Cubans who have a close relative who is a U.S. citizen get priority over exiles who are permanent residents. Green card holders seeking a visa for a spouse or a child in Cuba can wait four or five years to obtain a visa in Havana for a relative.

A FACTOR

'The backlog is one of the factors behind illegal arrivals by sea,' a source familiar with the discussions said.

Under the new rules, green card holders who claim close relatives in Cuba will be able to get a visa within the year in which they file the application. U.S. consular officials will allocate 7,500 fewer visas to the annual visa lottery on the island and assign those to family petitions. The total annual number of visas will remain between 20,000 and 21,000.

Taken together, the new measures amount to a strong signal that regardless of changes in Cuba, the Bush administration does not intend to abandon migration accords with Cuba in effect since 1994.

But the announcement also conveys a sharp distinction between Cubans who apply for a visa and those who try to sneak past the Coast Guard vessels that patrol the Florida Straits. Under the new rules, those sent back will still be eligible for regular lottery visas but not the new family-based expedited petitions.

Nothing in the new rules denies entry to Cubans who make it to shore -- even if they succeed in evading Coast Guard vessels. The wet foot/dry foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act remain intact.

However, a passage in the announcement raised the possibility that Cubans deemed to be human rights violators by the U.S. State Department may be denied admission. Homeland Security officials were not available late Friday to explain what this would mean to those who arrive by sea without permission.

ABUSERS REJECTED

But the source familiar with Bush administration discussions said the new rule means human rights abusers who apply for a visa in Cuba will be rejected, and if they make it to U.S. shores, they will be denied a green card.

However, there was no discussion on whether they would be detained or put in deportation proceedings. Cubans ordered deported are not sent back because Cuba generally rejects exiles.


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