Cuban doctors get a new shot at emigration — if applications were submitted prior to cutoff

In this file photo, Cuban doctors Karina Fonseca, left, and Ernesto Lemus, take part in a protest to draw attention to their plight to get U.S. visas, at Banderas square in Bogota, Colombia.
In this file photo, Cuban doctors Karina Fonseca, left, and Ernesto Lemus, take part in a protest to draw attention to their plight to get U.S. visas, at Banderas square in Bogota, Colombia. AP

Hundreds of Cuban medical professionals waiting in third countries for permission to emigrate to the United States got a reprieve Thursday with a new announcement by the Obama administration: paperwork submitted prior to the official end of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program will be processed.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) updated aspects of the new immigration policy toward Cuba and now says it will process pending applications to the parole program known by the acronym CMPP — provided paperwork was submitted before 5 p.m. Jan. 12, the official end to the program.

“[United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] will not accept and adjudicate any CMPP cases received at U.S. embassies and consulates on or after 5:00 p.m. EST on January 12, 2017,” a DHS spokesman said in statement Thursday. “However, cases initiated before that time frame will continue to be accepted and adjudicated by USCIS to completion.”

The clarification comes a week after the Obama administration announced the elimination of the program, as well as an end to wet foot, dry foot policy, which gave entry to most Cuban migrants who made it onto U.S. soil.

A DHS spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald earlier this week that doctors with pending applications to the CMPP program would be affected by the change, suggesting that even those with the parole status stamped on their passports would be treated like any foreigner with a visa, and therefore subject to being denied U.S. entry.

DHS sent the correction on Thursday.

The CMPP grants parole to Cuban doctors who can prove their nationality and that they were working as part of a Cuban government mission in a third country. On Thursday, DHS clarified that doctors with pending applications have to meet these requirements, too.

The updated criteria came as a relief to hundreds of doctors in third countries who have been waiting months for a USCIS response to their parole requests.

“Doctors who take this step are generally illegal in these [third] countries during the waiting time for a response from USCIS, under constant danger of deportation to Cuba,” a Cuban doctor waiting in Barbados said in an email. Because they are deemed “deserters” by the Cuban government, medical professionals returned to the island would suffer consequences, said the doctor who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals if deported.

In 2015, the Cuban government invoked the existence of the CMPP to announce that it would restrict doctors from the freedom to travel. At the same time, it offered “similar” positions within the Ministry of Public Health to doctors “tricked to defect by deceiving policies” who wanted to return to the island.

The export of medical services is one of the most profitable activities for the Cuban government — valued at $8 billion in 2014. The current economic crisis in Venezuela and political upheavals in Brazil have brought that number down in the past two years.

The Cuban doctor in Barbados, who spoke on behalf of several doctors in the same situation, said that they were not looking for “preferential treatment” but wanted to avoid being treated as “pariahs” by the Cuban government, if they return.

The Cuban government welcomed the announcement last week of the end to the program and issued its own declaration denouncing the CMPP as “part of the arsenal to deprive the country of doctors, nurses and other professionals in the field, in a virtual international operation of brain theft promoted by the U.S. government since 2006.”

In his statement on Jan. 12, President Barack Obama said preferential treatment to Cuban doctors “contradicted” joint U.S. and Cuban efforts “to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people” and risked “harming the Cuban people.”

The Obama administration praised the work of Cuban doctors who were sent by their government to fight Ebola in several African countries in 2014. But, according to various reports, the doctors only received half the salary paid by the World Health Organization while the Cuban government took the rest. Similar payment irregularities to Cuban doctors were reported in Brazil.

Florida Republicans Carlos Curbelo and Marco Rubio expressed their “hope” that the government of Donald Trump, who takes office Friday, will resume the parole program for Cuban doctors.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres