Feb 2, 2023 - World

Biden's Cuban migrant policy may not be effective in long-term, experts say

Credit Data: U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Chart: Axios Visuals

The Biden administration is crediting its new border policy for a significant drop in the number of Cubans and other migrants who have tried to unlawfully cross the southern border.

  • But immigration experts say the new measures may not be an effective long-term strategy to stem the flow of Cubans attempting to come to the U.S.

State of play: Driven by a worsening economic crisis, food and medicine shortages, and political upheaval, more Cubans tried migrating to the U.S. last year than ever before.

The Biden administration responded to the growing exodus by resuming visa services at the U.S. embassy in Havana and offering Cubans a chance at humanitarian parole.

  • Under the program, which was expanded in early January, up to 30,000 people from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti can come to the U.S. each month if they have a sponsor, pay fees, are vetted before arriving and meet other criteria.
  • Immigrants rights activists say the number is not nearly enough and have opposed the program’s restrictions on asylum access. Meanwhile, on the right, some see allowing 30,000 in each month as an overreach of the use of parole.

The big picture: The most recent exodus from Cuba has been at least partly driven by the worsening of the decades-long economic crisis on the island over the last three years, with more acute shortages and repeated blackouts.

  • The drop in tourism during the pandemic, sanctions from the embargo and complicated attempts to reform the economy have left empty coffers and wallets.
  • The government has less funds to import staples — around 70% of food is imported — and Cubans have little access to nutrition and medicines.
  • Activists also say the government has cracked down more heavily on dissent since mass protests in 2021.

Where it stands: Border authorities encountered more than 91,000 people from those countries at the Southwest border in December, according to Department of Homeland Security data.

  • But in January — when the new policy went into effect — there was a 97% decline in the number of encounters compared with last month, DHS announced last week, citing preliminary data.
  • In the first 20 days of the policy, more than 1,700 people from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti arrived in the U.S. through the new parole process, according to a DHS official.
  • That shows, the Biden administration says, the new policy is already working.

Yes, but: Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, says the new policy alone won’t be enough “to deter irregular migrant arrivals over the long term.”

  • That’s partly because the perception that the program may be blocked by the courts "could trigger Cuban migrants’ decision to resort again to irregular migration channels, especially because economic instability and episodes of political repression in Cuba are unabating," Ruiz Soto says.
  • The policy is being challenged in federal court by 20 Republican-led states that argue it creates a visa program without congressional approval.
  • Plus, the program could have the unintended consequence of leaving Cubans who have already made their way to Mexico, with plans to travel to the U.S., trapped south of the border if it ends or can't keep up with demand, Ruiz Soto adds.

Even if the policy is allowed to stay in place, years of U.S. warnings to Cuban migrants have done little to stem the movement before, says Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

  • "I don't believe much more can be done for the moment to slow down the flow of undocumented Cubans to the U.S. The hope is that the parole mechanism will in time at least reduce it by channeling it to legal means, but remains to be seen."

What we're watching: The policy does not automatically disqualify those who attempt to come to the U.S. irregularly by sea — a loophole that has raised concern among immigration-focused administration officials, according to one source familiar with internal government discussions.

  • The Coast Guard has intercepted over 5,300 Cubans at sea since October. Dozens have died attempting to migrate, including six people last week when a boat capsized.
Go deeper