The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S., Cuba hold talks over migration for the first time in four years

Cuban migrants are detained Feb. 5 by a U.S. Border Patrol agent as they turn themselves in to request asylum after crossing into El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The United States and Cuba held direct migration talks Thursday for the first time in four years, as the Biden administration seeks to stop an overwhelming surge of migrants at the southern border, in which Cubans have become the second-largest group of those seeking unauthorized entry through Mexico.

The administration is seeking to restore the terms of bilateral accords under which the United States agreed to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas annually to Cubans, and Cuba agreed to accept deportation flights of those who arrived illegally or were deemed otherwise inadmissible. Those agreements were suspended in 2018 by the Trump administration, which partially closed the U.S. Embassy in Havana and refused any meetings with the Cuban government.

Previously held twice a year, the migration meetings were suspended as part of the Trump administration’s reversal of Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba that had led to a restoration of diplomatic relations in 2015. President Biden pledged during his campaign to reverse Trump’s bans on remittances to the island, travel and diplomatic contacts, but has not done so.

The administration, while saying any substantive policy changes remain under review following a Cuban government crackdown on street demonstrations last July, has also been reluctant to antagonize politically powerful Cuban Americans opposed to any new outreach to Havana.

Cubans arriving in record numbers along Mexico border

The U.S.-initiated migration talks mark the first break in administration refusal to meet with the Cubans. “Engaging in these talks underscores our commitment to pursuing constructive discussions … where appropriate to advance U.S. interests,” the State Department said in a statement issued after the one-day meeting n Washington between teams led by Emily Mendrala, the U.S. deputy secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Carlos Fernández de Cossio, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister.

The U.S. interest that the administration hopes to advance is finding a way to ease political and logistical strains along the border, where immigration arrests from all countries have soared to an all-time high. Authorities have made more than 1 million detentions over the past six months, and they are bracing for those numbers to go even higher as the administration prepares to lift pandemic-related border restrictions next month.

Record numbers of Cubans are a growing share of that surge, with more than 32,000 taken into custody along the southern border in March, according to the most recent U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, up from 16,500 in February. The Cuba numbers are second only to Mexico, and surpass Guatemala and Honduras. CBP authorities are on pace to detain more than 155,000 Cubans during the 2022 fiscal year, a fourfold increase from 2021.

At least 65,000 Cubans have reached the United States since November, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a Havana ally, lifted visa requirements on Cuban travelers. Commercial and charter airlines ferry planeloads of one-way travelers to Managua multiple times per week.

After landing in Nicaragua, the Cuban migrants travel overland to the southern border. CBP records show that the vast majority enter the United States at Yuma, Ariz., where there are open gaps in the border wall, or wading across a shallow portion of the Rio Grande in the Del Rio, Tex., area.

Trump’s border wall has been breached more than 3,000 times by smugglers, CBP records show

Previous Cuba migrations have tended to be across the 90-mile straits between Cuban territory and Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard, under existing agreements, continues to return those apprehended at sea to Cuba. But the Cuban government has largely refused over the past several years — as agreed in a January 2017 accord signed with the Obama administration a week before Trump’s inauguration — to accept deportation flights from the United States.

Since consular services in Havana were shut down by Trump, Cubans applying for U.S. visas have been required to go to the embassy in Guyana.

That system is expected to continue, even though there are plans to reopen the consulate next month with a skeleton staff. It is unclear whether the administration plans to return to compliance with agreements to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.

In the meantime, those Cubans who cross the land border illegally face little risk of being sent back. Enforcement data obtained by The Washington Post show U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported just 20 Cubans since November, down from 95 during the 2021 fiscal year and 1,583 in 2020.

Immigration attorneys say a growing share of their Cuban clients are receiving a form of provisional legal status known as humanitarian parole as they are released from CBP custody. It is the same protection authorities have used to allow tens of thousands of Afghans to quickly enter the country since the fall of Kabul, and more recently it’s been used to wave through Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. Homeland Security officials say humanitarian parole is granted on a case-by-case basis.

For Cubans, humanitarian parole offers the most direct path to a U.S. green card under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is only available to applicants who have been legally admitted to the United States.

Cubans who do not receive parole after crossing illegally are generally released from CBP custody with a notice to appear in court at a later date. From there, they can apply for protection through the badly clogged U.S. asylum system, or pursue other legal pathways that would qualify them for permanent residency status under the Cuban Adjustment Act.