Miami Democrats want to bring back a suspended Cuban family reunification program

Two South Florida Democrats say their offices have been overwhelmed for months by Cuban constituents who are trying to bring family members to the United States but are hampered since the suspension of a program to unify families.

Now, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is introducing a bill with Rep. Donna Shalala’s support that would reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which ended when the U.S. embassy in Havana was downsized in 2017 after diplomatic personnel were sickened by a mysterious sonic attack.

The bill, which will be unveiled at a press conference in Miami on Friday, would require the State Department to start processing applications by Cubans within 30 days and complete existing applications within 60 days. Because the U.S. embassy in Havana is currently manned by a skeleton crew, Mucarsel-Powell’s office said visa interviews would take place via video conferences.

“We have no embassy to interview people, they have to go to Guyana,” Shalala said. “I have five staff people and they’re backed up. We’re particularly concerned about the backlog of people who have actually paid the fees, did all the right things and we have no mechanism to get their relatives here.”

But Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said while he wants to continue the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, he’s opposed to the bill because it doesn’t do enough to ensure the safety of State Department personnel in Cuba and requires too fast of a turnaround for the State Department to process visas.

“I am concerned that this bill does not address the risks inherent to a totalitarian state such as the regime in Cuba, and does nothing to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “While I strongly support continuing the CFRP program and streamlining the visa process for deserving Cubans, I believe that we must do so in a way that is workable and which protects our personnel.”

The bill currently has Democrat-only support and faces an uphill path for passage if Cuban-American GOP lawmakers like Diaz-Balart aren’t on board. Florida Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist have also signed on. Before the program was suspended, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agreed to allow at least 20,000 annual visas for Cuban nationals.

A USCIS spokesperson confirmed that the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program remains “under review” and declined to comment on pending legislation.

The bill comes three months after the Trump administration ended a similar program that allowed thousands of Haitians who were eligible to receive a green card to wait it out in the United States with relatives. Another small reunification program allowing aging Filipino World War II veterans to reunite with their loved ones before they die also ended in August.

A congressional source said Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala’s bill only applies to the Cuban program because there’s a backlog of thousands of existing applicants who remain in limbo after the embassy’s staff was slashed, and that other legislative options for Haiti are being considered. It’s up to the State Department to best determine how it will conduct video interviews with people currently in Cuba, according to text of the legislation.

“I’ve been listening now for months from hundreds and hundreds of constituents that they have actually paid their fees to USCIS for their Cuban Reunification Program and they’ve had many family members that have been stuck because they [downsized] the embassy,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “So what this bill does is it requires the process to continue. It’s a process that has already been approved.”

Shalala said two of her constituents came to the U.S. from Cuba legally three years ago and left their kids, who were eligible for the program, with their grandparents for a short amount of time. After the embassy was downsized, one of the grandparents died and another had a stroke, and Shalala said the children had to go to Guyana for a visa interview with the State Department.

“The kids had to go to Guyana to get interviewed; we had to beg the people in Guyana to interview the kids,” Shalala said. “The grandfather dies, the grandmother has a stroke, they’re left with neighbors, it’s a tragic story.”

James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, which supports closer ties to the island, praised the legislation.

“We need to commend these congresswomen for doing something other than just tough talk and rhetoric,” Williams said. “It’s a really a dark period for Cuban Americans and their family on the island. It will be very interesting to see how this bill moves and where it will go.”

Williams noted that pushing to reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program also becomes political in South Florida, where Donald Trump has staked his reelection chances in part with older Cuban voters in Miami who are deeply opposed to Cuba’s Communist government. He said the lack of movement from the administration on the family reunification issue could hurt Trump.

“Like with denying TPS for Venezuelans, the Trump administration and his enablers in Congress show their true colors by dividing Cuban families,” Williams said, referring to Temporary Protected Status. “Everyone should be for processing CFRP, and to deny this to Cuban families is not just political malpractice, it is heartless and cruel.”

Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Study Group, said reinstating the program will encourage more Cubans to use official immigration channels.

“It will also help ease the temptation for many Cubans to risk their lives journeying through Central America or taking to the high seas just to be with their loved ones in the United States,” Herrero said.

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.
Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.