WASHINGTON – Bolstered by Fidel Castro's surprise handoff of power, the Bush administration is preparing to ease some immigration rules for Cubans who want to live in the United States, focusing largely on reuniting families now separated by politics and the sea.
The draft plans, still under debate, seek to discourage a mass migration from Cuba over choppy waters — a journey that violates current immigration law and risks lives. But administration officials said they also hope the relaxed rules will prompt Cubans to push the Castro regime for official permission to head to the United States.
While stressing that any policy shift was not yet final, administration officials said the changes could be announced as early as this week.
"Taken together, they promote safe, legal and orderly migration, while they also support the Cuban people in their aspirations for a free and prosperous society," says a draft copy of Homeland Security Department talking points obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a potential Republican presidential candidate, on Tuesday praised the tentative plans as a "great change."
The policy shift would help "create a wave of change for the Cuban people currently living under the yoke of despotism to rise up and demand their freedom," said Frist, R-Tenn. "I encourage the administration to continue to show leadership at a time when the Cuban people need it most."
The new rules are being considered three months before elections in which Florida's governorship and at least one U.S. House seat in Florida are considered to be in play. Many Cuban immigrants live in the state.
The Homeland Security Department oversees U.S. immigration policy.
The administration has been tightlipped about any changes since an ailing Castro stunned the world by temporarily ceding power a week ago to his brother, Raul, so he could undergo surgery. U.S. officials say they fear any signal of a relaxed immigration policy could trigger a mass migration from Cuba.
To discourage Cubans from setting off for the U.S. by boat or raft, the administration is considering plans to cancel or reject visa applications from those who are caught trying to sneak in. Currently, Cubans stopped at sea are returned home or taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay for asylum interviews if necessary, but they do not face any penalties if they apply for visas in the future.
An estimated 125,000 Cubans fled the island in April 1980, followed by 40,000 more in August 1994. U.S. officials say fewer than 1,000 Cubans now reach American shores by sea annually.
Under the "wet foot/dry foot" policy, most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain, while those intercepted at sea are sent home. It is unknown how many attempt the risky voyage and don't make it.
The documents indicate that measures to help more Cubans immigrate to the United States were under discussion before the longtime leader stepped aside. "The administration has been considering possible changes for some time," noted a list of possible questions and answers included in the Homeland Security talking points.
President Bush said Monday, "We would hope that — and we'll make this very clear — that as Cuba has the possibility of transforming itself from a tyrannical situation to a different type of society, the Cuban people ought to decide."
Still, the Homeland Security documents reveal potential scenarios under discussion to help some Cubans leave their country legally. They include:
—Reuniting families by allowing U.S. residents to apply for expedited parole — legal entry into the country — for close relatives in Cuba. This would speed the immigration process for an estimated 10,000 Cubans who are waiting for U.S. visas to join families in the United States. Fewer than 1,200 visas have been issued annually to Cubans over the past five years, the documents show.
The Cuban government, however, would have to agree to issue exit visas for people headed to the United States.
—Discouraging human smuggling operations from picking up Cubans at sea by allowing U.S.-based relatives to get information on their whereabouts. Currently, federal authorities are not supposed to release specific information about migrants who are picked up at sea.
—Giving Cuban doctors who have gone to other nations — and their families — more access to immigrating to the U.S. after undergoing background security checks. According to the documents, the Cuban government sends medical professionals to developing nations "as a foreign policy tool." The administration also is considering expanding this benefit to other professions.
—Refusing U.S. entry to Cubans, or deporting those who are already in the country, who are found to have committed human rights abuses on behalf of the Castro government.