Thousands of Cuban-Americans in Florida are waiting to reunite with their relatives from Cuba through a family reunification program virtually suspended after the United States withdrew most of its staff from the embassy in Havana nearly two years ago, in response to unexplained health incidents that affected about two dozen U.S. personnel.
The Cuban Parole Family Reunification Program (CFRP) was suspended in September 2017, after the Trump administration withdrew its personnel from Havana, and resumed last year. But delays have left more than 20,000 Cubans on the island in limbo. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) told el Nuevo Herald that the agency has “conditionally approved CFRP parole for about 22,000 beneficiaries, whose cases are pending further processing overseas.”
The processing of Cubans’ applications for immigrant visas was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, last June, but the backlog persists.
“Unfortunately, circumstances in the region limit options for expeditious processing of all Cuban immigration cases,” said a spokesperson for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department.
The effects of the delays have been felt throughout the Cuban-American community, affecting even political refugees who fled the island for fear of government repression and had hoped to reunite with their relatives in the United States.
“I am a Lady in White,” Damary Reve said in a telephone interview, referring to one of the most recognized Cuban opposition groups. “In Cuba, I suffered the horrors of Castroism for questioning the dictatorship. Out of fear of being taken to prison I escaped to Ecuador, leaving my three young children on the island hoping to get them out of there someday.“
In 2015, she crossed seven countries to reach the U.S. border, where she was admitted under the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” later repealed by former President Barack Obama at the end of his term. Reve, who currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, immediately began the process for reunification. But after the program came to a halt, her eldest son decided to flee the island and make his way to the border on his own to request asylum, a path that many Cubans have followed in recent months.
“My oldest son turned 21, and they took him out of the [reunification process],” she said. “He could not continue waiting on the island because the government was persecuting him because he is the son of an opposition member.” Reve’s son traveled to Nicaragua and is now in Mexico hoping to ask for asylum at the border. Reve’s two daughters, ages 12 and 16, remain in Cuba.
“In December I went to see them because I could not cope with the separation,” she added. “State Security agents threatened to put me in jail if I ever go back to Cuba. Nobody can imagine my despair.”
“During a period of acute economic crisis in Cuba, the ongoing suspension of routine visa services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana exacerbates conditions on the ground, hitting Cuban families and entrepreneurs hardest and incentivizing irregular migration to the United States through Central America,“ said Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes peaceful change in Cuba.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures show an increase in the arrival of Cubans to the southern border. In fiscal year 2018, a total of 7,079 Cubans arrived in Laredo and other border crossing points. The number of Cuban arrivals has swelled to 10,910 so far in fiscal year 2019, which began on Oct. 1, 2018 and runs through Sept. 30.
The CFRP, created in 2007 under President George W. Bush, allows qualifying applicants to travel to the United States under parole, so they don’t have to wait for an immigration visa in the island. The beneficiaries can work legally in the U.S. and the majority obtain permanent residence through the Cuban Adjustment Act. The program is part of a bilateral accord to issue at least 20,000 immigration visas to Cubans, which was signed by President Bill Clinton after the “’rafters crisis” in the 1990s.
A spokeswoman for USCIS denied that the suspension of the family reunification program was linked to President Donald Trump’s tough stance on immigration. But the broader restrictive measures are affecting Cubans.
Following the staff reduction at the embassy in Havana, the U.S. did not comply with the 20,000 visas quota for fiscal year 2018. The in-country refugee program also has been suspended, the spokeswoman confirmed. And the number of visas to Cubans for short-term visits fell from 16,335 in fiscal year 2017 to 6,959 in 2018.
In March, the State Department eliminated the five-year, multiple-entry visa for Cubans and replaced it with a three-month visa good for only one visit. Cubans must travel to a third country to apply.
“The current situation of Cuban migration to the United States can be described as critical,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “There is an accumulation of pressure to leave Cuba and reach the United States, without adequate legal mechanisms to channel the exodus.”
Duany said the failure to grant the 20,000 visas to Cuban immigrants “seems to be designed to disrupt the use of migration as an ‘escape valve’ by the Cuban government.” Adding to the effects of the immigration policy, new sanctions and restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba will soon come into force — an attempt by the White House to apply pressure to the Cuban government because of its support of the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Reve and others like her believe that their families have become “hostages” of the growing hostility between Washington and Havana.
Relations deteriorated due to the still unexplained health incidents that have affected at least 26 U.S. officials and their families in Havana. In September 2017, the State Department withdrew all non-essential personnel from the embassy and suspended visa processing on the island. The U.S. has not determined who or what caused the incidents but has insisted that Cuba has not duly protected the diplomats.
“We are not to blame for what the Cuban government has done with the diplomats,” said Bertha E. Ramos, who arrived in the U.S. nine years ago as a political refugee with her husband, the son of an anti-Castro political prisoner. Ramos has been waiting for several years to reunite with her daughter and grandson, who live in Cuba.
“Like me, there are many mothers and grandmothers who are asking for help. We will pay, they can send us anywhere, we will go. But they should solve this. I have done everything. Even on Twitter I’ve written to [Florida Republican Senator] Marco Rubio and [Democratic representative] Donna Shalala, but they have not solved anything,” Ramos said. “If in three months my grandson does not have an appointment [scheduled for an interview] or his parole, he will be taken to the Military Service for three years,” which is mandatory in Cuba for men.
Rubio’s office said in a statement that he has received multiple complaints on this issue. “We are working with the applicants and their families who contacted us, and we continue to consult the Department of State on their behalf,” the statement said. Shalala’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart also wrote a letter to the State Department complaining about the suspension of the program that has affected several Cuban American voters in his district, which includes parts of Miami and Hialeah.
“For nearly two years, thousands of families have waited for an answer regarding the future of this program. While I appreciate the U.S. Department of State’s diplomatic obligations as well as its need to protect the safety of its personnel stationed abroad, I remain concerned about the delay and lack of guidance to eligible Cuban citizens whose cases are pending,“ he said in a statement sent to el Nuevo Herald.
“I will continue to seek answers and work with the administration to find a solution. Shamefully, the regime in Cuba failed in its obligation to protect Americans stationed in Cuba, and now innocent Cubans are suffering for it,“ added Díaz-Balart.
Under pressure from members of Congress and relatives of those affected, Kimberly Breier, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, recently acknowledged on Twitter that “there is a long wait for approved cases of CFRP.” She thanked those affected for their “patience and flexibility as we process petitions” out of Guyana.
Critics of this policy have proposed alternative solutions such as flying in staff once a month to expedite the processing of cases at the embassy in Havana or accommodating children and the elderly so they can conduct immigration interviews in the Cuban capital, instead of a third country. But the State Department has rejected both proposals.
“All applicants for immigrant visas must be present at the time of the visa interview, and we are unable to waive the requirement for children and the elderly to travel to Guyana,” said the spokeswoman for the State Department. “Given Embassy Havana’s limited staffing due to the health attacks, the Department is not contemplating sending personnel to Havana to process immigrant visas.”
Desperation has caused many to turn to social media seeking help.
Gretel Moreno, who is waiting for a response to an application to bring her brother, sister-in-law and niece to the U.S., manages the Facebook group Cubanos Unidos por la Reunificación Familiar. Created in 2017, it now has nearly 30,000 members. “In the group, we support each other, we help each other to fill out documents, to organize campaigns so that they do not forget the family parole [cases],” she said.
Moreno, a U.S. citizen who has lived in the country for 12 years, said she feels “completely helpless and disoriented.”
“When you pay for a service to a private [company], and it does not provide it, you can always complain and even sue,” Moreno said. “But what happens when the federal government is at fault? We have complained before each instance, and we do not receive a response. Is it because the government has the right to ignore us?“
Follow Nora Gámez Torres and Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @ngameztorres y @mariojose_cuba