After decades of providing a haven to immigrants fleeing communist Cuba, U.S. policy has been shifting in recent years so that fewer have been able to come to the U.S. and more are being deported.
Jesus Avila is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Cubans who have been affected by the policy shift. Avila has lived in the U.S. since his parents fled Cuba with him when he was 8 years old. He became a permanent resident but never took the time to get full citizenship.
“I guess growing up in such a community that was all immigrants, I didn’t feel the need to become a citizen,” said Avila. The 42-year-old lives in Miami and works in the construction business. “I was like: ‘For what? I’m a resident. What’s the difference?’ I didn’t see the difference.”
Avila would learn the difference when he returned to Miami from his honeymoon in the Dominican Republic last year. Federal officials pulled him aside at Miami International Airport for questioning about a 2012 conviction on cocaine possession, for which he did community service.
“I should not be in here,” Avila said in a phone call from an immigration detention center in Key West. “We went on our honeymoon and everything was beautiful and great and this was one big slap in the face from the country I’ve lived in almost my whole life.”
Avila was facing the prospect of being deported to a country he could hardly remember. “I don’t have family in Cuba. I don’t know anybody in Cuba,” he said.
The shift in policy toward Cuban immigrants began under President Barack Obama — who ushered in an historic warming of relations with the Cuban government — and has continued under President Trump, who has taken a harder line on the communist island and on immigration. Trump has not only made deportation of more immigrants in the U.S. illegally a priority, he has also limited visas for Cubans.
“People are definitely shocked. I was shocked at first, because it was something that I never expected to change,” said Tatiane Silva, an attorney who handles Cuban immigration cases in Miami. “The priority now is everybody.”
Obama announced that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014. Several years later, Obama ended the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that allowed Cuban nationals to stay in the U.S., even if they arrived illegally by boat, so long as they stepped one foot on solid ground. Boaters intercepted at sea were sent back to the island.
The Obama administration ended the policy, partly because the Cuban government had agreed to facilitate repatriations of Cuban nationals. Previously, the Cuban government wouldn’t accept most of its own nationals facing deportation from the U.S.
Then Trump came into office and dramatically expanded deportations. While Obama prioritized deporting undocumented immigrants who committed violent crimes, the Trump administration said it would deport any immigrant in the country illegally, including Cubans.
“Before, Cubans — even they had a final order of deportation, they were not physically taken out of the country,” said Silva. “Now that has changed. You do hear things you’ve never heard before, which is actual removal of Cubans back to Cuba.”
In fiscal year 2016, 64 Cuban nationals were deported back to the island, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Two years later, in 2018, that number shot up to 463 — more than a sevenfold increase.
“There are now more Cubans in detention facilities than any other time that I remember of,” said Santiago Alpizar, a Cuban-American immigration attorney in Miami. “Cubans are treated as any other migrant from any other part of the world.”
Alpizar said the Cuban Adjustment Act is one of the only remaining protections for Cuban immigrants. Signed into law in 1966, it allows Cuban nationals to apply for a green card after being in the U.S. for a year and a day.
But the Cuban national has to arrive to the U.S. legally in order to apply — and that has become harder to do.
Not only has the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy ended, but the Trump administration also announced in April that tourist visas for Cubans would be limited to one three-month visit, down from multiple visits for up to five years.
And in a strange twist, it’s almost impossible to get any kind of visa in Cuba. That’s because the American Embassy in Havana largely shut down after what U.S. officials have called a “sonic attack” on diplomats there. On its website, the State Department says that the embassy has “suspended almost all visa processing in Havana” as a result of the “drawdown in staffing” caused by the mysterious phenomenon.
Many Cubans are trying other ways to get to the United States. For the first time, in December, Cubans ranked among the top three nationalities making “credible fear” claims for asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border, according to a report released by the Cato Institute.
As for Jesus Avila, he got a court hearing after more than a month in immigration detention. The judge granted him a hardship waiver application, meaning Avila can stay in the U.S. because deporting him would be an undue hardship to him and his family. Avila helps care for his mother, who has a disability, and his new wife is an American citizen.
“This last month has been a nightmare,” said Vianeth Avila, Jesus’ wife, outside the courtroom. “We didn’t have any idea if he was going to get free, but he’s out. And thank God. Everything is good. Everything went good.”
Avila said: “I just felt such a relief. I started crying like a kid. Crying and crying and crying, I was like ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ My life was going to be back to normal. My mom’s going to be OK, my wife is going to be OK, you know — all of that went through my mind.”
Avila said he was “young and stupid” for not applying to get his full citizenship earlier.
In April, he took a citizenship test — and passed.