By LARA JAKES JORDAN | Associated Press
The Bush administration is preparing to help reunite some Cuban families with relatives already in the United States as part of a limited easing of immigration rules following Fidel Castro’s handoff of power.
At the same time, draft documents obtained Monday describe proposals to discourage smugglers trying to sneak immigrants into the U.S. from Cuba, in hopes of impeding any mass migration. In addition, the plan would refuse entry to Cuban government officials who have engaged in human rights abuses but make it easier for some Cuban doctors to move to the U.S.
While stressing that any policy shift was not yet final, administration officials said the changes could be announced as early as this week.
“Taken together, they promote safe, legal and orderly migration, while they also support the Cuban people in their aspirations for a free and prosperous society,” says a draft copy of Homeland Security Department talking points obtained by The Associated Press.
The new rules are being considered three months before elections in which Florida’s governorship and at least one U.S. House seat in Florida are considered in play. Many Cuban immigrants live in the state.
The Homeland Security Department oversees U.S. immigration policy.
The administration has been tightlipped about any changes since Castro stunned the world by temporarily ceding power a week ago to his brother, Raul, to undergo surgery. U.S. officials say they fear that any signal of a relaxed immigration policy could trigger a mass migration from Cuba.
To discourage Cubans from setting off for the U.S. by boat or raft, the administration is considering plans to cancel or reject visa applications from those who are caught trying to sneak in. Currently, Cubans stopped at sea are returned home - or taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay for asylum interviews if necessary - but do not face any penalties if they apply for visas in the future.
An estimated 125,000 Cubans fled the island in April 1980, followed by 40,000 more in August 1994. U.S. officials say fewer than 1,000 Cubans now reach American shores by sea annually.
Under the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain, while those intercepted at sea are sent home. It is unknown how many attempt the risky voyage and don’t make it.
The documents indicate that measures to help more Cubans flee Castro’s government were under discussion before the longtime leader stepped aside. “The administration has been considering possible changes for some time,” noted a list of possible questions and answers included in the Homeland Security talking points.
President Bush said Monday, “We would hope that - and we’ll make this very clear - that as Cuba has the possibility of transforming itself from a tyrannical situation to a different type of society, the Cuban people ought to decide.”
Still, the Homeland Security documents reveal potential scenarios under discussion to help some Cubans flee their country. They include:
Reuniting families by allowing U.S. residents to apply for expedited parole - legal entry into the country - for close relatives in Cuba. This would speed the immigration process for an estimated 10,000 Cubans who are waiting for U.S. visas to join families in the United States. Fewer than 1,200 visas have been issued annually to Cubans over the past five years, the documents show.
The Cuban government, however, would have to agree to issue exit visas for people headed to the United States. The documents do not address what the U.S. would do if Cuban authorities denied the exit visas, except to note that the Cuban government can ensure “the safety and welfare of its nationals by granting exit permission to people who are ready to travel.”
Discouraging human smuggling operations from picking up Cubans at sea by allowing U.S.-based relatives to get information on their whereabouts. Currently, federal authorities are not supposed to release specific information about migrants who are picked up at sea.
Under one scenario, according to a Homeland Security official, the new policy would allow U.S. relatives to obtain that information through their representative in Congress. The lawmaker would then get the information from Homeland Security and pass it back to the constituent.
Giving Cuban doctors who have gone to other nations - and their families - more access to immigrating to the U.S. after undergoing background security checks. According to the documents, the Cuban government sends medical professionals to developing nations “as a foreign policy tool.” The administration also is considering expanding this benefit to other professions.
Refusing U.S. entry to Cubans, or deporting those who are already in the country, who are found to have committed human rights abuses on behalf of the Castro government.
“They will be barred from entering our country by legal means whenever possible, and if they are discovered within our borders, we will take every measure to ensure that they suffer the consequences for their past behavior,” the documents note.
Castro’s power handoff prompted the Bush administration to meet with congressional lawmakers in Miami and south Florida about possible immigration changes to accommodate an influx of Cuban migrants. An aide to one of the lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said efforts to reunite families were among plans being discussed.