WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Courtesy: Mariakarla Nodarse Venancio

20 Dec 2023 | Commentary

Five Key Trends in Cuban Migration in 2023

Since our March 2022 commentary on Cuban migration, the Caribbean nation remains mired in economic turmoil with little relief. Nearly half a million Cubans have left their homes to seek new opportunities in the United States, embarking on perilous migrant routes over land and by sea. Meanwhile, state reforms in Cuba have failed to improve living conditions, and there is little political resolve in the United States to reassess policies exacerbating Cuba’s economic hardship.

1. The Historic Migration from Cuba Since the Pandemic

Nearly 425,000 Cuban migrants came to the United States across fiscal years 2022 and 2023. In addition, some 36,000 Cubans submitted asylum applications in Mexico from January 2022 through November 2023. Taken together, these figures account for over four percent of the Cuban population—the equivalent of emptying entire provinces of the island in just two years. These staggering numbers do not account for thousands more who have made their way to Brazil, Russia, Uruguay, and other countries during the same period.

After a precipitous increase throughout 2022, nationwide Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encounters with Cuban migrants peaked in December at 44,079. Historic levels of migration from the island—greater than the 1980 Mariel boatlift and 1994 rafter crisis combined—prompted the Biden administration to include Cubans in a new humanitarian parole program beginning January 2023 to “incentivize intending migrants to use a safe, orderly, and lawful means to access the United States.”

While this policy alongside more rigorous Title 42 expulsions initially slowed Cuban arrivals at the U.S. southern border to a trickle, by late 2023, Cuban migration was again on the upswing. This can be attributed to several factors, including long processing times for the parole programs, increased availability of direct charter flights to Nicaragua, ongoing hardships on the island, and the end of Title 42.

  • The Nicaragua Air Bridge

Nicaragua’s decision to drop visa requirements for Cuban nationals in November 2021 swiftly impacted the dynamics of Cuban migration. The opening of a relatively convenient air bridge to Nicaragua allowed Cubans to circumvent dangerous sea routes or Panama’s grueling Darién Gap. In the months since, thousands of Cubans have opted to fly to Managua. Once in Managua, the Ortega-Murillo government reaps profits off arbitrary entry fees before allowing smuggling networks to whisk migrants to the border with Honduras.

This route became even more accessible with the beginning of charter flight service in January 2023. Data obtained by the Inter-American Dialogue via Flight Aware revealed that an average of 50 charter flights a month shuttled 100,000 people from Havana to Managua in 2023. Nearly 77,000 of them were logged transiting through Honduras during the first 11 months of 2023. 

In response, the Biden administration recently moved again to limit the arrivals of unauthorized Cuban and Haitian migrants. On November 21, 2023, the Department of State announced visa restrictions for airline operators facilitating charter flights to Managua. Two Dominican charter companies and Aruba Airlines suspended services in response, although Venezuelan state airline Conviasa continues to offer nonstop service.

  • Seaborne Migration

Introducing the humanitarian parole program for Cubans in January 2023 reduced dangerous crossings in the Straits of Florida. By August 2023, interdictions at sea appeared to flatline. While the 13,000 Cuban migrant interdictions and encounters at sea in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who arrived by land and air, it still represents the largest wave of Cuban migrants at sea since the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis. Sea crossings could soon become more prevalent alongside their tragic consequences in the absence of alternative routes.

  • Other Migratory Routes

Cubans have found options for travel to the United States increasingly restricted. Authorities across the region have closed their doors to Cubans attempting to reach Nicaragua on flights with multi-stop itineraries: Costa Rica began requiring transit visas for Cubans starting in February 2022, while Panama and the Dominican Republic issued similar policies in March 2022. Jamaica and Mexico joined suit in March and October 2023.

Guyana is one of the only other countries in the hemisphere that still offers visa-free entry to Cubans. Before November 2021, Georgetown, the capital, served as the primary springboard for a circuitous migration route to the United States via the Darién Gap. While only a few hundred Cubans passed through the Darién Gap in 2023, Guyana remains the most direct route for Cuban migrants hoping to reach Brazil and other South American countries.

2. The Crisis Fueling the Exodus

Migration from Cuba to the United States is greater now than at any point since the immediate aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Unlike that wave of mass departures, today’s migrants are fleeing a grinding multidimensional crisis with no end in sight.

The crisis facing Cuba today can be traced in part to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which laid bare many of the island nation’s persistent structural dilemmas. Cuba’s fragile economy sputtered as tourism dollars—a lifeline for many—dried up. Longstanding U.S. embargo restrictions that prevent Cuba from purchasing goods on credit had serious implications for how the Cuban government was able to weather the economic downturn of the pandemic. These economic woes were further compounded by a U.S. policy reconfiguration under President Trump, which included returning Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism in January 2021.

Energy blackouts and shortages of food, fuel, and medicine have wreaked havoc on public services. These issues, alongside rising inequality and mounting frustrations with Cuba’s rigid political system, boiled over onto the streets in the spontaneous protests of July 11, 2021. Hundreds of people were detained and imprisoned in the wave of repression that followed. Much like the Mariel boatlift and the Cuban rafter crisis, the opening of new migratory routes served as an “escape valve” to allow disillusioned Cubans to leave—and leave they have. Government figures indicate the country hemorrhaged nine percent of its medical professionals between 2021 and 2022, while schools nationwide grapple with teacher shortages

These points underscore that life in Cuba has become unbearable for many. In a stark recognition of the country’s despair, government officials have recently warned Cubans to expect 8- to 10-hour daily blackouts, transportation disruptions, and food shortages for the foreseeable future.

3. Modest Progress on U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks

The Biden administration came to office declaring that Cuba policy would not be a priority in the region and has largely shunned the engagement policies pursued by President Obama. Nonetheless, in the face of increasing migration from Cuba, the United States and Cuba held high-level migration talks for the first time in four years on April 14, 2022. Since then, bilateral semiannual meetings have been convened to discuss the implementation of the U.S.-Cuba migration accords.

U.S. officials have focused these talks on cooperation on deportation flights and visa processing. The second round of talks in November 2022 yielded an agreement on the first Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation flights to Cuba since the COVID-19 pandemic. Deportation flights resumed on April 24, 2023 and have continued once a month ever since, returning a total of 386 Cubans to date. However, meaningful progress on bilateral migration accords at the latest migration talks in November 2023 remained elusive.

4. The Biden Administration’s Legal Pathways and Obstacles for Cuban Migrants

Cubans who reach the United States have long benefited from the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which provides a fast track to permanent residency. This route has now become more complex due to recent policy changes.

  • I-220A Residency Ineligibility

A September 2023 ruling from the Board of Immigration Appeals stipulated that a document commonly issued to Cubans upon arrival at the U.S. southern border (known as Form I-220A Order of Release on Recognizance) does not constitute legal admission into the country. As such, I-220A holders are no longer able to apply for a green card under the Cuban Adjustment Act. 

The ruling has been especially perplexing since CBP officers arbitrarily issue I-220A papers to some Cubans upon releasing them into the U.S. pending a court hearing. This contrasts with paroles, another kind of document that the CBP has often granted to migrant arrivals on a similarly arbitrary basis. Like paroles, the I-220A document had previously served to qualify Cubans for permanent residency after one year and one day in the country.

U.S. immigration authorities have not disclosed how many of the 442,977 Cuban nationals encountered by CBP since the beginning of fiscal year 2022 were released from custody under an I-220A document. Recent arrivals, however, are more likely to hold I-220A papers since the issuance of paroles became exceedingly rare after January 2023.

Thousands of Cubans in the United States now find themselves in legal limbo. Unless overturned by a federal court or the U.S. attorney general, all immigration courts must uphold this Board of Immigration Appeals ruling. Cubans holding I-220A papers are limited to appealing their cases, pursuing other routes of legalization such as asylum, or risking deportation.

  • Humanitarian Parole and the End of Title 42

During 2023, the Biden Administration unveiled expansions to two parallel policies—one humanitarian, one punitive—applicable to Cuban migrants. On one hand, over 50,000 Cubans traveled to the U.S. so far on a new pathway, the humanitarian parole program. On the other, Title 42, the Trump-era public health order enabling rapid expulsions without asylum access, was applied rigorously in January 2023 to return Cuban migrants to Mexico. Even after the end of Title 42 in May, a new agreement with the Mexican government continues to facilitate expulsions of Cubans who present at the border without an appointment from the CBP One application or parole authorization. Between May and October 2023, 17,000 citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were deported to Mexico by the U.S. government.

5. U.S. Consular Services in Havana: A Work in Progress

Consular services were suspended at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2017 following the unexplained health incidents that affected diplomatic staff. In recent months, the embassy has resumed many—but not all—services that facilitate travel and authorized migration.

  • Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) Program

Renewed in May 2022 after a five-year halt, the CFRP program enables Cubans with U.S. citizen or permanent resident family members to obtain temporary parole and apply for residency after arriving. 

In August 2023, a string of announcements renewed hopes for families eager to reunite with loved ones through legal pathways. First, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a streamlined CFRP process to boost accessibility and cut bottlenecks. This was followed by the announcement that the United States would reopen a Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Havana to tackle the backlog of applications and slash wait times. Finally, B2 visa holders were granted five-year validity for multiple entries, facilitating family visits and other travel between the countries.

  • Immigrant Visas

Equally pivotal are immigrant visas, which were restarted at the U.S. embassy in January this year as a result of migration talks. Previously, immigrant visa applicants had to make costly trips to Guyana for appointments at the U.S. embassy. This is still the case for applicants of non-immigrant visas, who are only processed in Havana on an emergency basis.

Crisis for the Future

The exodus of nearly half a million Cuban migrants speaks to a crisis that has sapped prospects for a viable future for many on the island. Cubans eager to leave have continued to by any means necessary, even as the United States shifts regulations to funnel migrants into legal pathways. Stark forecasts of food insecurity and continued shortages underline the urgency of developing domestic policies and enacting changes to U.S. policy that address the abject suffering of the island’s residents.

Graphics: Alex Bare