With visa-issuing operations at the U.S. Embassy in Havana at a virtual standstill, the United States is expected to fall far short of the minimum of 20,000 annual immigrant visas for Cubans that is the target in the U.S.-Cuba migration accords.
A semiannual report that the State Department is required to submit to Congress shows that through the end of July, only 3,195 visas were issued, making it highly unlikely when final visa numbers are tallied for the last two months of the fiscal year that the United States will come anywhere near the 20,000 visa target for Cuban migrants who don’t have immediate family members in the United States.
Meanwhile, from the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2017, through Aug. 3, U.S. consular officers issued just 134 family reunification documents, even though the United States had more than 20,000 applications pending. The report said that the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were considering options so that the family reunification program could continue.
Since the beginning of the fiscal year, the United States also has neither accepted nor processed applications for Cubans seeking refugee status in the United States, according to the report.
About two-thirds of the diplomats at the embassy were withdrawn last year after about two dozen U.S. personnel fell ill to a mysterious constellation of symptoms of unknown origin. While the United States hasn’t directly blamed Cuba for the incidents, it says it does hold Havana responsible for not ensuring the safety of American diplomats while they were in Cuban territory.
After the downsizing, the United States switched all but emergency visa-issuing operations to its embassy in Bogotá and then to the embassy in Georgetown, Guyana. Cubans who want visas to visit the United States also must apply for their documents at U.S. consular offices outside Cuba.
“Almost all visa processing in Havana has been suspended,” said the State Department report, and immigrant visa processing for Cubans at the latter two embassies is being handled at a “much reduced capacity.” Many Cubans also can’t afford to make expensive trips to Guyana and Colombia to apply for migrant visas, especially since they have no assurance such visas will be granted.
Cuban migration to the United States has been greatly reduced across the board since the embassy drawdown and since the United States ended a preferential policy for Cuban migrants in January 2017. Previously, under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, Cubans who arrived at U.S. borders without visas were given automatic entry into the United States and allowed to stay and get permanent residency and green cards after they had been in the United States a year and a day.
Now Cubans who attempt to enter the United States illegally and who don’t qualify for humanitarian relief are subject to removal, putting them on equal footing with potential immigrants from other countries.
Especially dramatic since the policy change is the reduction in the number of Cubans interdicted by the Coast Guard as they try to make their way to the United States by sea.
In fiscal year 2016, there were 5,651 Cubans interdicted at sea. That fell to 1,606 in 2017. And through Aug. 14 of this fiscal year, 200 Cubans were picked up at sea. If they have a credible fear of persecution if they return home, they are generally taken to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay for processing. Otherwise, under the migration accords, they are returned to Cuba.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard routinely cooperate in maritime migration matters, including “active target hand-off operations” in which the Cubans pursue a vessel until it leaves Cuban territorial waters, allowing the Coast Guard to interdict the vessel, according to the report.
Cuba patrols its coast to prevent illegal people smuggling operations and has reported 27 cases of illegal migration so far this fiscal year, according to the report.
The number of Cubans trying to make their way to the United States by traveling through Latin America to the U.S. border with Mexico also has fallen sharply this fiscal year. During fiscal 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had 15,557 encounters with Cubans along the southwest U.S. border. Through Aug. 21 of this fiscal year, the number was 5,465 encounters along the southwest border.
Cuba also has obligations under the migration accords, which were implemented to try to ensure safe, legal and orderly migration between the two countries. Although Cuba no longer requires Cuban citizens to get exit visas before they leave the country, the report said some medical personnel “have reported challenges” when they ask to leave and there also have been “credible reports of dissidents being denied permission to travel.”
Slowly both countries have worked to chip away at a list of 2,746 Cubans who left the island during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and were later deemed ineligible to remain in the United States for various reasons such as a prior criminal record in Cuba or because they had committed a crime in the United States.
Since 1984, 2,034 Cubans from this list have been returned to the island and 254 have died. Through August, a total of five Cubans on the list were repatriated in fiscal 2018.
There is also a backlog of around 37,000 other Cubans who are subject to final orders of removal, according to the report. Many of those on that list are convicted felons who have served their time for crimes committed in the United States but couldn’t be returned to Cuba before the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations in 2015. In recent years, according to the report, the U.S. has submitted 2,000 cases to Cuba of those who it would like to return to the island. In a historic first, Cuba agreed to the repatriation of 10 Cubans on this list in December 2017.
Under a 2017 joint statement signed by the United States and Cuba, all Cubans who left the island after Jan. 12, 2017, and tried to enter or remain in the United States illegally also are subject to being sent back to Cuba. But Cuba has interpreted this nonbinding guideline differently from the United States, saying it doesn’t have to accept individuals who left the island before Jan. 12, 2017, but then didn’t try to illegally remain in or enter the United States until after that date.
As of Aug. 8, the report said, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had proposed 687 Cubans it wanted to repatriate under the guidelines of the 2017 joint statement, but Cuba has denied entry for 362 of them due to its different interpretation. “The Department of State and ICE are attempting to resolve this difference in interpretation,” the report said.
The last time the United States and Cuba met to review migration trends and how the migration accords were working was in July in Washington. The two sides expect to hold the next round of migration talks in late 2018.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi