The renewal of U.S. tourist visas issued to Cubans since bilateral relations were established in 2015 has turned into a headache for many relatives in Miami.
The B-2 visas, valid for five years, that allowed many Cubans on the island to visit relatives in the United States, are about to expire.
And the renewals, which are up to U.S. consular officials and are not automatic, are more complicated now because many consular functions in Havana were halted after the alleged sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba. Applicants must now travel to U.S. consulates in third countries.
Miami resident Zuilem Casas has just lived through the laborious process with her mother, a 70-year-old book editor who had already visited her several times and has no intention of staying.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Casas said her mother phoned the U.S. embassy in Havana for information on renewing her visa, which expired in November. She was told to start the renewal process six months before it expired, which she did. She filed an application online, paid the $160 fee and was interviewed at the U.S. Consulate in Merida, Mexico.
“They not only rejected her, but they canceled the six months she had left on the visa,” Casas said. "They told her she was rejected because she had relatives in the United States, meaning she might decide to stay and become an immigrant.
“My mother tried to follow the instructions of the embassy, renewing six months before the visa expired, and look what happened. I think they are punishing her for being a decent person,” said Casas.
She had already bought a plane ticket for her mother and now complains that during the consular interview, her mother was never asked about her ties to the island, where she owns a house and has a job.
“My mother does not want to live in this country [U.S.],” said Casas, who is a U.S. citizen.
Renew or wait?
The choice for Cubans now is whether to follow the embassy advice to renew their visas six months before they expire, or wait until the end.
Miami immigration attorney Santiago Alpizar said Cubans should apply early for renewals, even though changes in U.S. Immigration policies have made it harder for them to win the extensions. It's best to use the existing visas “as much as possible,” he said.
Wilfredo Allen, another Miami lawyer who specializes in immigration cases, said he recommends applying for renewals at least 90 days before the visas expire, especially because Cubans must now travel to a third country for consular interviews.
Allen said it's generally difficult to obtain U.S. tourist visas, but that once issued, they are often approved for renewal. But he added that it's important for the visitors not to work or overstay their visas.
“Some Cubans have stayed longer than allowed or have visited very often,” he said. “You have to understand that they can count the days. And that can lead them to cancel or deny the visa.”
Allen said Cubans who have more relatives on the island than in the United States, and who have properties and jobs, have a greater chance of renewing their visas.
But he also cautioned that anyone with a visa that expires in 30 days or less can be denied U.S. entry and returned to Cuba.
Alpizar said the most secure way for immigration is through the family reunification process.
“Since the renewal process is not clear, I always advise people who want to bring their families to do it through family reunification,” he said, adding that the U.S. relatives must then promise that they will be financially responsible for the arriving Cubans.
“The United States reserves the right to allow anyone to enter, and denies the permit if it considers that the person could become a burden on the public,” he said.
U.S. consular officials are aware that Cuban visitors can obtain residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act and then seek government assistance. But those who arrive for family reunification cannot obtain public assistance because their U.S. relatives have promised to support them.
Alpizar added that Cubans who arrive on family reunification visas obtain U.S. residence immediately, meaning they can travel to any other country and remain there for up to six months.
He cautioned that Cuban immigrants are no longer “privileged” in the United States, and predicted that the number of visas issued to island residents would continue to shrink.
"They have to take advantage of the rights that exist today, to request the reunification with parents and siblings,” he said, adding that there's a bill before the U.S. Congress to eliminate preferences for certain categories of extended and adult family members.
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH