From the streets of Havana to the Mexican border with the United States to South Florida, there was a new immigration reality Friday, the day after the Obama administration said Cubans would no longer be allowed to enter the United States without visas.
It turned on its head more than two decades of immigration policy that essentially allowed Cubans who made it to U.S. shores by sea or showed up at U.S. borders — even if their trips were arranged by people smugglers — to enter the United States legally and a year later become eligible for permanent residency.
Because of the swiftness of the change — the new migration understanding between Cuba and the United States took effect immediately after signing Thursday afternoon — there was plenty of confusion about what the policy will and won’t do. Most provisions of previous migration accords between the two countries in the 1980s and 1990s remain in effect but the executive agreement signed in Havana by the two countries covers new ground.
“Who was going to expect that all of a sudden they would come up with this news?” Midamis Martínez Cruz, 37, of Miami, asked Friday.
Dennis Pupo Cruz, her brother, is stuck on the Mexican side of the bridge that connects Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with the United States. He wasn’t allowed to automatically enter the United States but was told he could apply for political asylum.
“We do not know what to do yet,” said Pupo Cruz , who does not want to return to Cuba.
Although the policy shift was front-page news and amply aired on state-run television on the island, “people are confused,” said Hatzel Vela, a reporter for WPLG Local 10 who was in Havana when the news broke. “They’re wondering if, for example, they come with a visa whether the Cuban Adjustment Act will still apply.”
The answer to that question is yes — unless Congress repeals it.
Here’s a look at some of the most significant aspects of the new policy governing Cuban migrants:
▪ The elimination of automatic entry for Cubans who arrive in the U.S. without visas: This ends the policy known as wet foot, dry foot that allowed those who arrived on U.S. soil (dry foot) to remain in this country. Cuban migrants entering the United States illegally will be deported.
“The aim here is to treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent with migrants who come here illegally from other countries, particularly other countries in the same region,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The wet foot part — return to Cuba or resettlement in a third country for those picked up at sea or who manage to penetrate the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay — will continue to be policy.
The Cuban government also might agree to accept on a “case-to-case” basis other Cubans under deportation orders who are not covered under the migration understanding, Johnson said.
▪ Acceptance of Cuban citizens deported by the United States: Cuba has agreed to accept the return of its citizens trying to enter the United States illegally by air, land or sea if the time between when they leave Cuba and the time when the United States begins deportation proceedings is less than four years.
Johnson said that eventually the United States would like Cuba to agree to accept every Cuban deported from the United States.
A government declaration published in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, said the agreement implied that the United States will return to the island all Cuban citizens detected by the United States “when they attempt to enter or remain [in the United States] irregularly in violation of the law.”
Meanwhile, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator in talks with the United States, said Cuba “will continue to guarantee the right of Cuban citizens to travel and emigrate and return to the country in accordance with the requirements of our migration law.”
She called the new policy an “important step” that is “in the national interest of Cuba and also in the national interest of the United States.”
▪ Certain aspects of a preferential policy for Cuban migrants will remain: An annual visa lottery that hands out a minimum of 20,000 visas to come to the United States remains in effect as does a family reunification program that allows residents of the United States to sponsor their family members.Approved family members who qualify for this program will be able to travel to the United States before their immigrant visas become available, rather than wait in Cuba until the visas are ready.
As always, Cubans may apply for asylum and entry into the United States if they can establish a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
“A Cuban migrant [arriving at the U.S. border], like a Guatemalan migrant or a migrant from El Salvador, can assert a claim of credible fear at the border when they arrive,” Johnson said. But now “our approach to Cubans arriving [today] will be the same as those arriving from other countries in Central America, Mexico and otherwise.”
Previously, while awaiting an asylum determination, a Cuban would have been paroled into the United States and could begin to receive benefits under the Cuban Adjustment Act. “There’s not not going to be a separate queue for Cubans,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “If they are not paroled in, they will not be able to adjust and achieve the benefits under the CAA.”
There’s not not going to be a separate queue for Cubans.
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser
Cubans who arrive with visas will be eligible for the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to apply for green cards and permanent residency after they have been in the United States for a year and a day.
But Vidal said Cuba also would like to see the Cuban Adjustment Act repealed so that there really is a normal migration relationship between Cuba and the United States.
Johnson said the Obama administration would also “welcome repeal by Congress, our Congress.”
It’s unclear what the incoming administration’s position is on the Cuban Adjustment Act or if President-elect Donald Trump would try to reverse the new Cuban immigration policy.
Some analysts speculate he won’t.
“Trump is unlikely to reverse: such an action would be at odds with his campaign promises to enforce orderly migration flows,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Washington-based Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
▪ Cubans put on more equal footing with people from other countries who want to come to the United States: Haitians, who suffered a devastating hurricane seven years ago and more recent natural disasters that have slammed an already weak economy, said they were surprised and gratified that there will now be some equity in U.S. immigration policy.
“I think it levels the playing field for the Haitian and the Cuban immigrants who are coming here because the Haitian community has been at a disadvantage since the policy,” said Fayola Delica, who recently lost a bid to represent state House District 108 and is the niece of the late Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, a Haitian human rights activist. “But yet I do hope there will be a replacement policy for both communities.”
▪ An end to the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program: Cuban doctors and other medical professionals working in third countries will no longer be given preferential entry into the United States. Vidal said that the program was undermining Cuba’s international medical cooperation programs.
About 30 Cuban doctors gathered in Bogotá, Colombia, on Friday to protest the end of the program. In the past 10 years, about 8,000 Cuban professionals have taken advantage of the program to come to the United States from Venezuela, Brazil and other countries where they have been serving on Cuban medical missions.
“We’re fearful about what will happen to our colleagues,” said Dr. Alberto López, one of the protestors, in a telephone interview. “There are a lot of people en route [to the United States] and we don’t know what will happen because they can neither return to their missions nor take advantage of parole.”
▪ Return of Cubans who are excludable from the United States under U.S. laws: The Cuban government had agreed to take back 2,746 Cubans who were deemed excludable from the United States after the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Some on that list have already been sent back to Cuba or died.
Cuba also has agreed to consider accepting some others who emigrated and have committed crimes.
One issue that is yet to be explained by immigration officials is what happens to Cubans who arrive with visitor visas then overstay their visas and seek residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act after more than a year in the country. Neither Johnson nor other top officials have addressed this.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles and el Nuevo Herald reporters Alfonso Chardy, Abel Fernández and Mario J. Pentón contributed to this report.