U.S. resumes deportation flights to Cuba after 2-year pause

Washington — The Biden administration this week restarted deportations to Cuba after a two-year pause, warning Cuban migrants that they could be returned to the communist-ruled island if they attempt to enter the U.S. without legal permission.

On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out its first deportation flight to Cuba since December 2020, when air deportations from the U.S. to Havana were largely suspended, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement.

Homeland Security officials said the Cuban government had agreed to “take no retaliatory action” against deportees and that U.S. officials in Havana were planning to monitor Cuba’s commitment. All the Cuban migrants deported Monday had final deportation orders, the officials added.

Monday’s deportations, the Homeland Security officials said, marked the “resumption of air removals” to Cuba.

“The United States has a longstanding policy of removing to their country of origin all foreign nationals who lack a legal basis to stay in the United States. This policy applies to all non-citizens regardless of nationality, including Cuban nationals,” the department said.

The Cuban interior ministry said 123 Cubans arrived on Monday’s deportation flight, including 83 migrants processed along the U.S.-Mexico border and another 40 individuals interdicted at sea.

The resumption of U.S. deportations to Cuba comes as the Biden administration is testing several measures to deter unlawful border crossings, which soared to unprecedented levels last year. In fiscal year 2022, 221,000 Cuban migrants were processed by U.S. border officials, a record high. The U.S. government has attributed the mass exodus from Cuba to the economic crisis there, food shortages, political repression and Cubans’ access to visa-free travel to Nicaragua, where they can travel to the U.S. border.

In December, at the height of last year’s historic migration wave, more than 42,000 Cubans entered U.S. border custody. The Biden administration then moved to toughen border enforcement measures, convincing Mexico to take back Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians if they attempted to enter the U.S. illegally. 

While Mexico agreed to accept up to 30,000 Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans expelled by the U.S. each month, the Biden administration committed to allowing the same number of migrants from these four countries to fly to the U.S. legally if Americans applied to sponsor them.

After the U.S. started expelling Cubans to Mexico under the Title 42 pandemic-era border restrictions, the number of Border Patrol apprehensions of Cuban migrants plummeted. In March, just 117 Cubans were apprehended by Border Patrol agents after crossing the southern border illegally, a 99% drop from December, government data show.

Still, U.S. officials have been warning that the number of migrants coming to the southern border could spike again once the expiration of the national COVID-19 public health emergency triggers Title 42’s termination on May 11. DHS has been preparing for worst-case scenarios in which between 10,000 and 13,000 migrants cross the southern border daily once Title 42 lapses. 

In an effort to deter migration, the administration has proposed a rule to restrict asylum eligibility, started speeding up interviews of migrants who request protection and asked Colombian and Panamanian officials to curb migrant smuggling along Panama’s Darién jungle, which many migrants traverse en route to the U.S.

In addition to the record level of Cuban arrivals along the southern border last year, the U.S. has also reported a sharp increase in interdictions of Cuban migrants at sea. In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 6,182 Cuban migrants in the Florida straits and Caribbean Sea, a 638% jump from 2021.

Six months in, that tally has already been surpassed this fiscal year, with the Coast Guard recording 6,317 interdictions of Cuban migrants as of earlier this month. The vast majority of Cubans processed by the Coast Guard are returned to Cuba without a chance to seek U.S. asylum.

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