The United States has deported twice as many Cubans in 2017 than in 2016, but that still represents less than 10 percent of all the Cubans who entered the United States after Cuban nationals lost their special immigration status.
Some 15,410 Cuban nationals arrived to the United States in fiscal year 2017, and just 160 have been removed from the country. According to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the vast majority of those people were deported since January, when the U.S. ended its "wet foot, dry foot" policy, as arrivals of Cuban nationals plummeted to about 2,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year.
This tally of Cuban deportations is small compared with deportations to other countries – the United States stopped 38,000 undocumented Guatemalans and returned 33,000 to Guatemala in fiscal 2017, for example.
But the statistics have unnerved many in South Florida’s Cuban-American community, offering the first evidence that the end of “wet foot, dry foot” not only brought the longest and most massive cycle of the Cuban exodus since 1959 to an end but is now changing immigration trends in South Florida.
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“I was lucky,” said Manuel Escudero Reyes, 38, who won asylum in July after spending five months in two Texas detention centers. “I got freedom. ... There are many people who can’t come.”
In the spirit of fighting illegal immigration, President Donald Trump upheld Barack Obama’s decision to end the 1996 policy that allowed Cubans who reached the United States to remain in the country under a special immigration status called parole and, a year later, become eligible to seek permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
In a June 16 memorandum, Trump announced he would not reinstate “wet foot, dry foot,” which he said “encouraged untold thousands of Cuban nationals to risk their lives to travel unlawfully to the United States.”
The decision to terminate the policy has reduced the flow of irregular immigration from Cuba by 64 percent, according to the State Department. The number of so-called “rafters” intercepted at sea has declined further, by 71 percent.
More Cuban nationals would have been removed from the United States if not for limited detention facilities and Cuba’s resistance to take its citizens back, according to the Homeland Security Department.
“As far as why Cuban nationals have not been removed, I would point out that Cuba is still considered a recalcitrant country,” said a DHS official.
That issue came up at the biannual Migration Talks this week between the two countries. While confirming that the United States is fulfilling its obligation to issue 20,000 immigration visas a year to Cuban citizens, the State Department pressed for “increased Cuban cooperation in the return of Cubans with final orders of removal from the United States,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
According to 2016 congressional testimony by Michele Bond, former assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, Cuba was the “most recalcitrant country on repatriation of its nationals.”
Many of the Cubans who came to the United States without visas this year applied for asylum and have been detained in immigration centers until their cases are resolved. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement couldn’t immediately say how many Cuban nationals are being held in detention centers, but there were 1,355 Cuban nationals in detention as of July. As of the end of August, 134 asylum applications made by Cubans were pending.
DHS officials said the agency has had no choice in some cases but to release individuals from detention due to limited bed space. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that the immigrant detainees and asylum seekers can’t be detained indefinitely.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said if Cubans start coming again in larger numbers, it could turn into a big problem. Even if the immigrants don’t ultimately qualify for the asylum, Cuba will only take back a very narrow set of cases, she said.
“They’re here for the indefinite future until Cuba changes its policies,” she said.
Cuba has long resisted taking back its citizens, citing its own migration laws that prevent certain nationals from returning.
“It‘s not a simple thing like we have one of your people and here he or she is,” said a U.S. source familiar with the administration’s challenges returning Cubans to the island.
Currently, more than 36,000 Cubans are facing orders of removal for conviction of crimes or immigration violations.