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Cubans Continue To Lose Favored Immigration Status In U.S.


For decades it has been U.S. policy to give a haven to people fleeing communist Cuba. But over time, Cubans have been losing that favored status first under Obama and now under Trump, who has taken a harder line on Cuba and on immigration. Danny Rivero of member station WLRN reports.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: Jesus Avila has lived as a legal permanent resident in the U.S. since his parents fled Cuba in the 1980s. He's 42 now, lives in Miami and works in the construction business.

JESUS AVILA: I guess growing up in such a community that was all immigrants, I didn't feel the need to become a citizen. I was like, for what? I'm a resident, you know? What's the difference? I didn't see a difference.

RIVERO: He didn't see the difference until he went on his honeymoon late last year. When he returned with his new bride, immigration officials at the airport pulled him aside. They detained him and flagged him for deportation because of a 2012 conviction on cocaine possession for which he did community service.

AVILA: I felt betrayed by my own country. That was the only time I've ever had that feeling 'cause I wasn't born here, but I've been here since I was a kid, I was 8 years old. So for me, I'm an American.

RIVERO: For decades, most Cubans couldn't be deported because Cuba wouldn't take them back. Then U.S.-Cuba relations took an historic turn under President Obama. He resumed diplomatic relations with the island nation and ended what was known as the wet foot, dry foot policy. That gave asylum to most Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil even if they came here illegally. Tatiene Silva is an attorney who handles Cuban immigration cases.

TATIENE SILVA: Before Cubans were - even if they had a final order of deportation, they were not physically taken out of the country. Now that has changed. So you do hear things that you've never heard before, which is actual removal of Cubans back to Cuba.

RIVERO: Last year, 463 people were deported to Cuba, a sevenfold increase over the last two years. Many like Avila weren't a priority for deportation under previous administrations. Now they've been caught up in Trump's immigration crackdown.

SANTIAGO ALPIZAR: I believe there are more now Cubans in detention facilities than at any other time that I can remember of.

RIVERO: Santiago Alpizar also handles immigration cases. He's Cuban American and says his community is shocked by the deportations and by other changes that have slowed immigration from Cuba.

ALPIZAR: Cubans are no longer a priority for immigration. Cuba - I treat it as any other immigrant from any other part of the world. The only thing that remains in play for Cuba is the Cuban Adjustment Act.

RIVERO: The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to apply for a green card after being in the U.S. legally for a year and a day. No other nationality gets that benefit. But here's the thing. Under Trump, there's fewer ways to reach that milestone. His administration has limited tourist visas to three months down from 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. As for Jesus Avila, he was detained for more than a month.

AVILA: Everybody was going crazy. They didn't know what was going to happen - possibly get deported. And God knows. Anything could have happened. I was going to go to a country I don't remember.

RIVERO: Avila argued an immigration court that he should be allowed to stay in the U.S. His wife is an American citizen, and he said he's needed here to take care of his disabled mom. The judge agreed.

AVILA: I just - I felt such a relief, and I just 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 - you know, all that what's on my mind. It was bad, man.

RIVERO: Avila says he was young and stupid to not have gotten his citizenship earlier. He recently took his citizenship exam, and he passed. For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.