WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) – Cuba has agreed for the first time since the pandemic to accept U.S. deportation flights carrying captured Cubans at the U.S.-Mexico border, three U.S. officials told Reuters, giving U.S. authorities a new limited tool to deter records. number of Cuban border workers.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a dozen Cubans in custody who failed initial border screenings for asylum, officials said, requesting anonymity to discuss the diplomatic situation. The US agency is waiting to have enough Cuban deportees to fill a plane before sending one to Havana, they said.
A third source familiar with the matter said there was no new formal agreement for scheduled deportation flights but that Cuba had agreed to accept occasional groups of deportees.
Regular deportations of Cubans have been halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the United States has continued to deport small numbers of Cubans via commercial airlines, a separate U.S. official told Reuters.
The US State Department, White House and ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
About 1,500 Cubans were deported in fiscal year 2020, which began Oct. 1, 2019, the year regular deportation flights were halted, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The resumption of ICE deportation flights to Cuba could send a symbolic message to would-be migrants who typically fly to Central America and travel north to the border. A record 220,000 Cubans were arrested at the US-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022, which ended September 30. The vast majority were released in the United States to pursue immigration cases.
Cuba, ruled by the Communists, is obliged by previous migration agreements to accept its nationals sent back by the United States. The most recent bilateral agreement was concluded in January 2017, shortly before the departure of President Barack Obama.
The US Coast Guard has continued to return migrants captured at sea and has repatriated more than 5,600 migrants so far this year, according to official Cuban media.
Top US immigration officials visited Havana this week – the highest-level US visit since the historic rapprochement under former President Obama – as the migration crisis worsens.
U.S. authorities made more than 2.2 million migrant arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022, more than any other year on record. Of those, about 1 million were quickly deported to Mexico or other countries under a pandemic-era order known as Title 42. But only 2% of Cubans apprehended at the border were expelled in fiscal year 2022.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Sandra Maler
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