MIAMI — South Florida Republicans announced Monday they’re introducing a bill in Congress that would jump-start a federal program that helps reunite Cuban families by resuming consular services on the island from Guantánamo Bay amid a growing backlog of applications.
U.S. Reps. María Elvira Salazar, Carlos Gimenez, Mario Díaz-Balart and Stephanie Murphy, a Central Florida Democrat, are co-sponsoring the Cuban Family Reunification Modernization Act of 2021, which would restart processing claims under the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, known as CFRP. The humanitarian program allows eligible citizens and permanent residents in the U.S. to apply for their relatives on the island to join them in the U.S. while they wait for their immigration visas to be issued.
It first went into effect in 2007, but has been halted indefinitely since the U.S. government began scaling back personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2017, when several diplomats got sick with a mysterious illness that some believe was a targeted attack. Ultimately, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office in Havana was shuttered in 2018, leaving no U.S. staff in Cuba to process CFRP applications.
The program is still in effect, however, and over 100,000 applications have piled up and remain in limbo. While the Biden administration has said it is reviewing all policies toward the island, it has also said Cuba policy is not a priority.
“The Cuban people are suffering under the chokehold of socialism, families remain separated by the brutal Castro regime, and the situation is more dire than it has even been after the sonic attacks in Havana essentially shut down U.S. consular services on the island,” Salazar said in a statement to el Nuevo Herald.
The announcement comes on the last day of Cuba’s Communist Party Eighth Congress, during which Raúl Castro officially stepped down as the leader of the party and President Miguel Díaz-Canel was named the new chief. The four-day conference, which is happening behind closed doors, is taking place amid one of Cuba’s worst economic crises, rising inequality and broad public discontent.
If it becomes law, the new bill would allow for pending and new claims to be processed in the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, where officials would conduct in-person interviews and provide other pre-screening services. It doesn’t allow for Cubans to apply for asylum at the base and it gives the naval station’s commander the power to close down services if “a high number of Cuban nationals” try to show up without an appointment, according to a memo from Díaz-Balart’s office.
“In contrast to the chaos at the border, codifying this program will ensure an orderly, secure, and safe way for Cubans to have their applications processed on the island,” Díaz-Balart said in a statement, alluding to the increase in the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from their countries of origin.
Laura Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Diaz-Balart’s office, said the lawmakers plan to file the legislation on Tuesday.
In a statement, Murphy added that she was proud to help lead the legislation.
“My parents and I were fortunate to escape a brutal communist regime and we were welcomed by this country together as a family,” said Murphy, adding that if the bill becomes law, it would “swiftly and lawfully” reunite Cuban families.
Gretel Moreno, a Hialeah resident who has been waiting for years for her brother and other family members to reach the United States, said the proposal was “excellent news.”
“It was time for them to listen to the suffering of our people,” she said. “We have been suffering separation for years and there are truly dramatic cases, of children separated from their parents and on the verge of being forcibly recruited into the Cuban army.”
Aniuska Garcia, who also lives in Hialeah, said she hopes this bill will become law, noting that currently, Cubans must travel to Guyana for visa interviews — a long and expensive trip.
“Many of us do not have enough resources to pay for a trip to Guyana for our relatives to do their interviews. Hopefully all this is not on paper and promises,“ she added.
(El Nuevo Herald staff writer Mario J. Pentón contributed reporting.)