U.S. will reopen immigration office in Cuba to tackle family-reunification backlog

After almost a five-year break, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is reopening its office in Havana, a step that will bring more resources to process a backlog of family reunification cases and expand access to legal immigration pathways for Cubans, the Biden administration says.

“This administration is taking steps to reduce unlawful entries, deny resources to ruthless smuggling organizations, and streamline access to lawful, safe, and orderly pathways for those seeking humanitarian relief. Reopening the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Havana helps us do just that,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas.

“Cubans like my own family, who nearly 63 years ago fled the communist takeover, deserve the same opportunity to follow legal pathways to build a new life in the United States,” Mayorkas added.

The Department of Homeland Security, which manages USCIS, says the Havana office will conduct interviews and process pending cases in the Cuban Family Reunification Parole, a program that helps those with approved family-based immigration petitions to expedite their entry into the U.S.

The office will also process petitions by refugees and people who have been granted asylum in the U.S. to bring their close relatives to the United States and provide other “limited services” like processing refugee petitions, according to an agency’s statement.

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More than 20,000 cases in the Cuban Family Reunification Parole program remained in limbo for several years because the Trump administration withdrew most staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana in late 2017 due to the unexplained health incidents that sickened two dozen U.S. employees with an illness later known as Havana Syndrome. A year later, in December 2018, DHS also closed its office in Havana amid efforts by the Trump administration to cut the number of refugees coming to the United States.

Havana Syndrome is still a mystery under investigation. Still, despite internal disagreements, some intelligence agencies have ruled out a foreign adversary waging a global campaign against U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. Those developments have allowed the Biden administration to gradually restore services at the embassy in the Cuban capital amid the largest immigration wave of Cubans coming to the United States in several decades.

In May last year, DHS announced it was resuming the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, and interviews restarted in August 2021.

But last week, DHS said that “interview capacity limitations in Cuba, resource constraints within DHS and State [Department], and the pending application caseload have made the process inefficient and inaccessible” to many beneficiaries in Cuba.

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Under the burden of almost 300,000 Cubans coming through the U.S. border with Mexico and in rafts to Florida last year, the administration also announced in January that it would allow Cubans — and citizens of Haiti and Nicaragua — to live in the United States for two years under a new parole program requiring a U.S. financial sponsor. Many Cubans with approved family reunification petitions felt they had been sidelined after seeing that those who benefited under the new program were traveling to the United States in just a few months.

To speed up the processing, DHS announced last week changes to the way the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program works so most steps can be completed online.

“USCIS’ renewed presence in Cuba is part of our effort to restore USCIS’ footprint outside the United States,” Mayorkas said. “These efforts are consistent with the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to facilitate safe, legal, and orderly migration while discouraging irregular and dangerous maritime migration.”