Maria Sulay Lopez holds a photograph of her son and grandson while at home in Sweetwater, Florida. Tribune News Service
Nora Gamez Torres, Tribune News Service
When Maria Sulay Lopez arrived in the United States in 2014, she assumed her son in Cuba would quickly get a visa to join her. But almost seven years later, the breast cancer patient still doesn’t know when they will be together.
As she gasped for breath from an oxygen tank, a result of a permanent tracheotomy, Lopez said she can no longer work and just wants a solution.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” she said on a recent afternoon. “And look at the condition I’m in.”
The case is among some 100,000 filed by Cubans and Cuban Americans in the US hoping to reunite with family members on the island which are on hold as visa processing at the Havana embassy remains suspended. As the Biden administration reviews its Cuba policy, some in the exile community are clamoring for a quick resolution. The US government withdrew most of its staff in 2017 after numerous diplomats fell ill from a mysterious ailment whose cause is still unknown but some suspect was an attack from a foreign adversary.
According to a US State Department report, 78,228 family-based immigration claims are pending at the National Visa Center, which processes approved petitions, as of last November. Cuba is now among the 10 countries with the highest number of pending cases, according to the report.
That figure does not include those who are waiting for interviews at the embassy, a State Department official told the Miami Herald. Meanwhile, another 22,000 are on standby through the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which provides a fast-track for some petitioners with relatives in the US.
The enormous backlog has left thousands of Cuban families in limbo for more than four years. Ana Santiago, a US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman, said the agency sent invitations to all eligible applicants to participate in the family reunification program in late 2016 and planned to do so again in 2017. But later that year, visa processing was halted. In 2018, the USCIS office in Havana was closed and refugee processing suspended. Combined with Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and pandemic travel restrictions, many families have been left uncertain when they’ll be reunited.
A State Department official could not say when Havana’s embassy would resume visa services but said the US remains committed to safe and legal migration.
Lourdes Hernández, who lives in Jacksonville, has been trying to bring her daughter, now 32, since 2014. Two years later, she received an invitation to participate in the reunification program. She sent in the paperwork and a $360 payment. Her daughter dropped out of college, thinking her departure was imminent, and put off other personal milestones, like getting married, that could delay or complicate her application.
But it would be years before she heard from the government again. Shortly before the pandemic, US authorities informed her an immigration visa was available, but then travel restrictions hit.
“This has affected our entire lives,” Hernandez said between sobs. “My daughter has her uncles and grandmother in Cuba, but she doesn’t have me, unfortunately.”
A broken immigration system for Cubans was, in part, the collateral damage of the mysterious incidents that affected the health of US diplomats, their families, and CIA agents in the Cuban capital between the end of 2016 and May 2018. The cause of the so-called “Havana syndrome” is still being investigated by various federal agencies, including the CIA, and remains a key barrier in restoring ties with the US.
In September 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered most embassy staff to evacuate and suspended visa processing. That meant Cubans have had to wait longer to get a response and travel out of the country, first to Colombia and currently Guyana, for visa interviews - a trip that is too expensive for most families to afford.
Those unwilling to wait embark on risky journeys through Central America to reach the Mexican border with the US to seek asylum. But they, too, have run into restrictions. Under the Trump administration, thousands ended up in immigration detention centers where they spent several months fighting their asylum cases or were deported. Many others were returned to dangerous Mexican border cities to await the resolution of their asylum claims through the “Remain in Mexico” program, which was recently suspended by the Biden administration.
Immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen, who regularly represents Cuban clients, noted that citizens of other countries like Mexico usually have to wait much longer than Cubans — in some cases up to 20 years — to legally immigrate to the United States. But he believes that the resumption of the family reunification program for Cubans would prevent “desperate people risking their lives and embarking on the dangerous route through Mexico” to reach the border.
Cubans who come to the US through this route can apply for permanent residence after one year and one day, thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which is still in force.
Allen added that although the Cuban government was complying with immigration agreements and accepting deportees, the US has not been granting the 20,000 visas promised to Cubans under the 1994 immigration accords with the island to avoid another rafter crisis.
The State Department did not respond to inquiries from the Herald asking if the US had complied with the migration accords with Cuba since 2018. That year, the agency acknowledged that it would “face challenges” to reach the established quota.
The 22,000 applicants who applied through the family reunification program, which was established in 2007 to help meet the annual quota, have received no answer during this time. Their cases were never assigned to any embassy or consulate in third countries. Yet, regularly, the State Department has issued statements assuring that it was working to ensure the program’s continuing operation.
Jorge Duany, an immigration expert and director of the Cuban Research Institute at the Florida International University, says the Biden administration could weigh alternatives for these families and other Cubans trying to reach the US.
“Among other options, the US consular personnel based in Havana could be expanded, taking the pertinent health precautions, so that Cubans could submit their visa applications on the island and would not have to travel to other countries to do so,” he said.
With Biden’s promises to reverse what he has characterized as “the failed Trump policies” that “inflicted harm on Cubans” and to build a “fair and humane” immigration system, many desperate families are hoping for a change.
During the Trump years, Facebook groups sprang up, helping organize those affected by the suspension of consular services in Havana. Some met with Miami congressional delegation members, such as Republican Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who wrote to the Trump administration requesting a solution, and former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsell-Powell, who introduced a bill in November 2019 to resume the parole program for Cubans.
None of these efforts paid off. Now, Cubans and Cuban Americans are mobilizing again to get the new administration’s attention through Twitter and public demonstrations.
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