Number of Cuban migrants to U.S. believed to be rising

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.

Miami immigration lawyer Wilfredo Allen said he has also noticed an increase in the number of recent Cuban arrivals, especially from Spain and Mexico, seeking his advice. From one or two cases a week, he said, he’s now seeing three or four per week.

Cuba’s migration reforms were clearly one of the most popular measures adopted by ruler Raúl Castro since he succeeded brother Fidel, most importantly removing the widely hated government exit permit known as the “white card.”

Castro also expanded from 11 to 24 months the time that Cubans can remain abroad without losing their residence — and benefits such as free healthcare. That means they can live in the United States for one year and one day, obtain U.S. residence, return to the island to preserve their residence there and be able to travel back and forth at will.

In another change, Cubans who left illegally, such as rafters and athletes and physicians who were previously labeled as “traitors” and banned from ever returning to the island, can now return if they have spent at least eight years abroad.

Havana’s migration changes are designed to allow the departure of “those most irritated by official policies” and bring in cash to support Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, former Cuban intelligence analyst Arturo López-Levy wrote in a recent Internet column.

“They are not meant to unleash a massive or uncontrolled emigration to relieve an urgent crisis,” added López-Levy, now a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the University of Denver.

Clapper told the Senate, in a brief reference to Cuba during testimony on global security issues, that no country was seeing a “significant” hike in Cuban travelers.

Yet there are anecdotal signs that a growing number of are Cubans traveling abroad.

In an island where personal travel abroad was rare before Jan. 14, Panama’s Copa Airline has advertised a sale on flights from Havana to Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Panamá, according to a dispatch by the AFP news agency.

Mexican government officials are taking bribes of up $10,000 to issue tourist visas to Cubans who don’t meet the tough requirements, such as having incomes of about $1,000 per month, one recent arrival in Miami said. Once in Mexico they head to Texas.

Eduardo Matias López, a Cuba-born immigration lawyer in Mexico City, said he has noticed that since Jan. 14 Mexican immigration officials have been sending back a growing number of Cubans who land in the nation’s airports — six and seven per flight.

López added that he believes the Cubans are being returned because of mistakes by the immigration officials, rather than the discovery of fraudulent or fraudulently obtained Mexican visas on the passports of the arriving Cubans.

Some Cubans also are reported to be flying to Haiti, which does not require visas of Cuban visitors. They then slip into the neighboring Dominican Republic in hopes of finding boats that will smuggle them east to Puerto Rico or west to Florida.

A Cuban migrant in Nigeria wrote an email to El Nuevo Herald last month asking how he could get to Mexico. He left the island in February because a Nigerian friend wangled him a tourist visa and a plane ticket, the man wrote.

“I have a good job here, and I have no relatives in Miami that I know of,” he wrote. “But for any Cuban, that is the promised land.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.

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