U.S. and Cuba discuss migration as thousands of Cubans arrive under new parole program

American and Cuban officials met Wednesday in Washington to discuss migration for the first time this year following significant changes in how Cuban immigrants are allowed to come to the United States as part of an effort by the Biden administration to curtail a massive exodus from the island.

The U.S. State Department said the meeting focused on the implementation of migration accords in place between the two countries.

“The U.S. delegation highlighted areas of successful cooperation on migration, while also identifying issues that have been obstacles to fulfilling the goals of the Accords,” the State Department statement said. “Engaging in these talks underscores our commitment to pursuing constructive discussions with Cuba where appropriate to advance U.S. interests.”

A State Department spokesperson said the discussions were “limited to the topic of migration.”

“Ensuring safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration between Cuba and the United States remains a primary interest of the United States, consistent with our interest in fostering family reunification, and promoting greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” the spokesperson said.

David Cloe, the Department of Homeland Security’s deputy assistant secretary for the western hemisphere, led the U.S. interagency delegation. The Cuban delegation was headed by Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio.

More than 300,000 Cubans arrived in the United States last year, mainly at the Mexico border, the biggest number since the early days of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro.

In January, the Biden administration expanded a program already in place for Venezuelans to allow Cubans — and migrants from Haiti and Nicaragua — to apply for special parole to enter and live in the United States for at least two years.

More than 15,000 Cubans have already arrived lawfully through this parole process through March 31, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said. In total, over 55,000 Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians and more than 40,000 Venezuelans have received travel authorization through the program, the spokesperson added.

Since the start of the parole program for Cubans, official statistics recording U.S. border officers’ “encounters” with Cuban migrants nationwide show a significant decrease in the number reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Before President Biden announced the program in early January, officials recorded more than 44,000 encounters at the border involving Cuban migrants. In February, that number was 6,548. Numbers for March have not been released yet.

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“Since the President’s January announcement, encounters between ports of entry at the southwest border have declined drastically,” a DHS spokesperson said. “The successful use of these parole processes and the significant decrease in illegal crossing attempts demonstrate clearly that noncitizens prefer to utilize a safe, lawful, and orderly pathway to the United States if one is available, rather than putting their lives and livelihoods in the hands of ruthless smugglers.”

The effects of the program, which requires access to a phone, internet and a financial sponsor in the United States, are less clear in reducing dangerous sea trips from the island.

Just this month, the U.S. Coast Guard said it had repatriated 197 Cubans who were interdicted at sea trying to reach Florida shores. The number of Cubans stopped at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard this fiscal year, which started last October, has already surpassed last year’s figures: by April 4, 6,250 Cubans had been repatriated to the island, compared to the 6,182 that were sent back in all of the fiscal 2022.

On Tuesday, a Cuban official previewed the island’s government agenda for the meeting. Johana Tablada, the deputy director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North America Division, said the delegation would again ask its American counterparts to resume issuing visas at the U.S. Embassy in Havana to Cubans who want to visit their families in the United States. The embassy suspended issuing non-immigrant visas for family visits and business and professional exchanges in late September 2017. At the time, the Trump administration decided to evacuate non-essential embassy staff and family members due to unexplained health incidents related to the so-called Havana Syndrome that are still under investigation.

Cubans who want to visit the United States must apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate in a third country.

“After six years, the obligation to travel to a third country to obtain a visa is inexplicable for Cuban citizens, when there is an Embassy and a Consulate in Cuba,” the Cuban delegation argued during the meeting, according to a statement by the country’s Foreign Ministry. The delegation added that “the reasons that were alleged to close such services in Cuba have been demonstrated as false,” in reference to the U.S. intelligence community assessment published in March about Havana Syndrome concluding that there is no evidence of a global campaign by a foreign adversary targeting U.S. officials overseas.

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The Biden administration slowly began to beef up personnel at the embassy in 2021. It resumed granting immigration visas in Havana early this year but has not announced plans regarding the visitor visas. The State Department said the embassy is already issuing “official, diplomatic and emergency non-immigrant visas.”

“The successful resumption of immigrant visa processing fulfills an important part of our commitments under the Migration Accords,” the State Department spokesperson said. “We look forward to resuming all consular services when we have the capacity.”

The Cuban delegation also complained that the economic impact of the U.S. embargo and the Cuban Adjustment Act, a law that provides a quick path for permanent residency to Cuban migrants, are both factors encouraging migration from the island.

The Center for a Free Cuba, a human-rights advocacy organization, said the Cuban government uses migration as leverage in talks with the United States.

“No immigration talks with the Cuban dictatorship, manipulated by Havana weaponizing migration as leverage, can succeed for the Cuban people or the interests of the United States, while an internal blockade is imposed on Cubans by the Castro regime and over a thousand Cubans imprisoned for exercising their right to express their desire for a free Cuba,” said John Suárez, the center’s director.