Since the Cuban government introduced reforms five years ago that broaden the ability for Cubans living abroad to seek permanent residency on the island, more than 40,000 Cuban nationals from around the world have applied for “repatriation” to the island, Cuban diplomat Ernesto Soberón said over the weekend during a meeting with Cubans living in Europe.
According to Soberón, director of Consular Affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, 40,603 Cubans living abroad have applied for permanent residence on the island, a process known as repatriation. The official did not clarify if that number corresponds to the approved requests.
It is also unclear how many of those granted the repatriation permit plan to return to the island and make Cuba their permanent home. Many repatriation seekers do it to have their civil and economic rights reinstated — for example, their right to own real estate on the island. Meanwhile, many continue to live in other countries, including the United States.
Cuba’s immigration reform, which took effect in January 2013, eliminated the so-called exit permit for islanders, although the government continues to prevent some activists and opponents from leaving the country. Changes in the law also permit Cubans to remain abroad for two years before being classified as an “emigrant,” which would strip them of legal residency on the island, as well as various civil, economic and political rights, according to current government regulations.
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The change has allowed many Cubans who emigrated after January 2013 to obtain permanent residency status in both the United States and Cuba, for example, a paradox the Cuban government has used to change their migration statistics and argue that those Cubans have not really left the island.
Since January 2013, Cubans took more than 2.6 million trips abroad, Soberón said at the XIII Regional Meeting of Cubans in Europe, held on Saturday in Brussels. It is not clear if the figure includes doctors and other officials traveling on government-sponsored trips.
He also said that from Jan. 14, 2013, to Jan. 14, 2018, immigration authorities registered more than 2 million entries to the island by Cubans living abroad.
Soberón concluded that “Cubans are increasingly traveling and do not emigrate massively.”
Statistics, however, tell another story.
Between fiscal years 2015 and 2017, 185,047 Cubans obtained a green card in the United States, according to official figures from the Department of Homeland Security. The exodus of Cubans through Central America and Mexico during those years triggered a humanitarian crisis and the intervention from regional governments, the United Nations and the United States.
But changes in U.S. immigration policy have significantly reduced the number of Cubans who are currently entering the country.
In January 2017, shortly before the end of his time in office, President Barack Obama eliminated the policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which granted a special entry permit (parole) to Cubans who made it onto U.S. soil.
The change in U.S. policy has had a significant impact on the number of Cubans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. In fiscal year 2018 — which began on Oct. 1, 2017, and ended on Sept. 30 — 6,223 Cubans arrived at the border, according to figures from Customs and Border Protection. By comparison, in fiscal year 2016, 41,523 Cubans arrived in the United States through ports of entry along the Southwest border.
The suspension of the processing of visas and the family reunification program at the embassy in Havana under the President Donald Trump administration has further reduced the number of Cubans who are emigrating to the United States. According to a State Department report, only 134 family reunification documents had been issued for fiscal year 2018 through Aug. 3.
The Cuba refugee program is also suspended. And the United States is not expected to meet its goal of 20,000 annual emigration visas it agreed to as part of migration accords with Cuba. As of the end of July, only 3,195 visas were issued.
But Cubans have sought new destinations to emigrate. According to official figures, through June of this year, 1,106 Cubans had requested refuge in Brazil. As of May, another 2,025 had requested refuge in Uruguay. And 11,119 arrived in Chile in 2017.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres