Three months after Cuba eased its restrictions on travel abroad, a growing number of Cubans are applying for and obtaining U.S. tourist visas or arriving without visas at the border with Mexico, U.S. government officials say.
The officials caution that it’s too early to estimate the size of the increase, and add that there has been no sign of any sort of mass exodus that would add significantly to the more than 1.6 million Cubans and descendants already living in the United States.
But their comments lend credence to a string of anecdotal reports about a visibly increased flow of Cuban migrants moving through a phalanx of countries as diverse as Nigeria and Haiti — and yearning to eventually reach the United States.
A significant increase in the number of Cubans entering the United States could generate pressure to cut back on the preferential federal benefits they now receive, including permanent residence after just 366 days under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a Senate hearing last month that the new migration policies adopted by Cuba on Jan. 14 had prompted “a modest boost in U.S. visas” but gave no numbers or other details.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana indeed has approved a growing number of visitor visas since the Cuban change but cannot yet quantify the increase, said one U.S. government official who asked for anonymity because of her department’s rules.
Applications for visitor visas also increased but so did rejections, the official added. Families with children, previously blocked from leaving Cuba, can now travel. But their visa requests are usually rejected out of concern they will remain in the United States. Most tourist visas are issued to elderly people visiting relatives in the U.S.
U.S. diplomats in Havana more than tripled the number of interviews for visitor visas, the U.S. official added, both to meet the growing demand and to reduce the backlog of appointments — down from nearly five years to a few months.
The official also noted that the waiting period for interviews for immigrant visa applications rose from five to seven months since Jan. 14. The U.S. issues 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans per year to deter risky escapes by sea.
Vivian Mannerud, owner of the Miami-based travel agency Airline Brokers, said she is seeing a slight increase in the sale of Havana-Miami-Havana tickets since the Cuban migration reforms took effect. But it’s early for exact numbers, she added.
Hints of a more significant hike in the number of Cubans arriving in the United States are contained in official but preliminary figures obtained by El Nuevo Herald from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Those figures show 6,843 Cubans entered through the Mexico border since Oct. 1, the start of the government’s current fiscal year. If the arrivals continue apace, the total come the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 31 will hit roughly 13,700 — a 33 percent increase over the previous fiscal year and the highest level since 2005.
Arrivals by sea, meanwhile, appear to be dropping during the same periods, perhaps in part because of the expanded opportunities to leave the island legally. That number could hit about 200 by Sept. 31, compared to 423 in the previous fiscal year.
Undocumented Cubans who set foot on U.S. territory, including immigration posts in Texas, get to stay under the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. Those intercepted at sea are sent back to the island.