U.S. Halt in Visa Services Leaves Cuban Families in Limbo


“It doesn’t give them an escape,” said Vicki Huddleston, a Cuba expert who ran the United States diplomatic mission in Havana from 1999 to 2002. “I think it risks another massive migration. You have folks who really want to leave, and at least that was a possibility while we were issuing immigrant visas.”

As of November 2016, there were 106,351 Cubans awaiting immigrant visas, according to the State Department, which did not respond to questions about how it intended to address this caseload given the reduced staffing level in Havana.

Cuban Americans and their relatives on the island, many of whom have spent years waiting for visa interview appointments, were despondent after learning that consular services in Havana had been suspended.

Irene Hierrezuelo, 50, had been so anxious in recent weeks about her Oct. 2 appointment at the embassy that she barely slept at night and took pills to steady her nerves. She was counting the days to be reunited with her daughter, Sulay Falconet, 30, who moved to Houston in 2012, and to embrace her 3-year-old grandson, Jeremy. The yearning to be reunited became unbearable, she said, after Ms. Falconet’s home was flooded last month when Hurricane Harvey battered Houston.

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Ms. Falconet with her husband and son in their Houston apartment. “To be honest, I’m very afraid,” she said. “No one gives you answers.”

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Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

“I feel so powerless,” Ms. Hierrezuelo said in a telephone interview over the weekend, breaking into sobs. “The only thing I have in life is my daughter and my grandson.”

Ms. Falconet, who works at a car dealership in Houston, said she had been looking forward to holidays and birthdays once again being joyous events rather than reminders of her mother’s solitude.

“To be honest, I’m very afraid,” she said. “No one gives you answers.”

The news also devastated Carmen Miranda, a doctor who secured a United States visa in 2015 after defecting from a medical mission run by the Cuban government in Brazil. Ms. Miranda, 50, was allowed to sponsor her husband and younger daughter for visas at the American consulate in Rio de Janeiro.

But her older daughter, Mariela Quiñones, had to return to Havana and wait a few years to join the family, because new American immigrants can simultaneously sponsor only children who are under 21. Ms. Quiñones was 23 when her parents and sister moved to Miami.

“I don’t want to spend another birthday without you guys,” Ms. Quiñones told her mother in a text message over the weekend. “My 26th I’m already going to spend without you, but I don’t want to spend my 27th.”

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Ms. Hierrezuelo with a photo of her daughter and grandson.

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Lisette Poole for The New York Times

Ms. Miranda, a social worker who takes care of elderly people in Miami, sought to cheer up her daughter.

“Sweetie, I don’t know about this one, but your next birthday we’ll spend sailing on a cruise or at Disney,” Ms. Miranda texted back. “You have to trust and think positive and you’ll see at any moment we’ll get the surprise.”

Yet Ms. Miranda said the surprise they had long yearned for now felt more like holding out for a miracle. Before last week, she would call a phone number for visa inquiries each week for updates on her daughter’s petition. Officials kept telling her they were still processing cases filed in 2010, but while Ms. Quiñones was nowhere near the front of the line, at least the family knew the pipeline was flowing.

“I can’t get over this,” Ms. Miranda said. “Imagine the pain a mother feels when she longs for a child.”

Juan Manuel Iglesias, 53, can relate. A Miami welder who has lived in the United States since 1997, he has spent four years trying to get a visa for his wife, Tania González Sánchez, 46, an optometrist from the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos. Immigration officials requested more evidence about the relationship after Ms. González had a visa interview in May 2015, but the couple has yet to hear back.

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Tourists in Havana. In addition to reducing its Havana embassy staff, the State Department has advised Americans not to travel to Cuba.

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Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

“It’s been hard for both of us,” Mr. Iglesias said. “She always has doubts about whether I have another woman here. But we’ve stayed together because we’re in love.”

The State Department has said that Cubans may apply for temporary visas, such as those issued to students and tourists, at other embassies. But it has offered no guidance to applicants for immigrant visas, which are generally issued in a person’s country of origin or residence.

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, said on Tuesday that the Cuban Embassy in Washington would also struggle to provide consular services to its citizens as a result of the State Department’s expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats. The new staffing levels at the embassies in Washington and Havana, Mr. Rodríguez said, will leave each consular section staffed by just one officer.

Carlos Alzugaray, a scholar and former Cuban diplomat who lives in Havana, said the Trump administration’s decisions threatened to derail the good will and trust that the Cold War antagonists had begun to rebuild since diplomatic relations were restored in late 2014.

“It affects academic, cultural, educational and environmental exchanges,” Mr. Alzugaray said. “It’s like a furtive rupture in relations without closing embassies.”

Ms. González lamented the effects that the latest geopolitical twist is having on people’s personal lives.

“Those are problems between countries and governments that should not interfere in our marriage,” she said. “And yet the days pass and I don’t see a way to be reunited with my husband.”

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