It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. embassy in Havana suspended processing requests from people hoping to leave the island nation as refugees. The reason: Staffing was reduced to a skeleton crew in the wake of mysterious health attacks on embassy personnel.
The State Department said new arrangements would be made for refugee applications, but that hasn’t happened yet. Cuban refugees have had to find other ways to the United States.
The result is a dramatic drop in the number of Cuban refugees coming to Florida — from more than 1,000 a month in late 2017 to fewer than 400 a month today.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said her inquiries on behalf of constituents who have family in Cuba have brought only "boilerplate language" in response. Castor, the Tampa Democrat, said this is not a "suspension" of refugee services, in Havana but "a total shut down. And it’s been done without a formal announcement."
The Tampa Bay area, home to the third-largest Cuban population in the United States, used to welcome hundreds of Cuban refugees a month among the thousands a month who made Florida their destination.
That was when the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy was in force, granting refugee status to any Cuban who made it from the communist nation to U.S. soil. In December 2016, about 600 Cuban refugees arrived safely in the Tampa Bay area and some 7,000 statewide.
Since then, because of two developments, the numbers have plummeted.
First, in January 2017, after restoring diplomatic relations severed more than five decades earlier and reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana, President Barack Obama ended wet foot, dry foot.
From that point through last September, when embassy services were suspended, an average of 94 Cubans refugees arrived each month in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to the state Department of Children and Families. Statewide, the monthly average for this eight-month period was 1,016.
From last October through June, the average monthly numbers have fallen to 38 in the Tampa Bay area and 375 statewide. This nine-month period is the latest for which figures were available from the state.
Before the suspension, Cubans claiming persecution at home had two options in Havana for gaining entry to the United States: Seek refugee status through the same process available to foreign nationals around the world or use a category special to Cubans.
Called the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, the category allows citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States to bring family from Cuba into the country without waiting for immigrant visas. Once they arrive, they are categorized as refugees and granted immediate access to the government services and financial assistance available to refugees.
Asked about the status of the Cuban reunification program now, the State Department provided the same response via email that it gave one year ago — the agency is still "determining arrangements."
Since the suspension of consular services in Havana, all Cuban refugees processed by a Florida nonprofit group that helps in resettlement have come through the U.S.-Mexican border.
"They face a lot of persecution in Cuba and that is the only way they can escape from a regime that still oppresses people," said Lourdes Mesias of Lutheran Services Florida.
In interviews with immigration officials, the Cuban refugees were able to prove there was "credible fear" that returning to Cuba would be dangerous, Mesias said.
It’s the same test all people seeking refugee status at the border must pass.
Still, Cubans continue to receive some preferential treatment, Mesias said.
Once released from U.S. detention centers, they are immediately eligible for government assistance. Those from other nations must wait until they are officially granted asylum.
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.