WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) – Cuba has agreed to accept US deportation flights carrying Cubans trapped at the US-Mexico border for the first time since the pandemic, three US officials told Reuters, giving the US -Authorities a new but limited tool to prevent recording numbers of Cuban cross-border workers.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has in custody about a dozen Cubans who failed an initial check for asylum at the border, officials said, asking for anonymity to discuss the diplomatic situation. The US agency is waiting until it has 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 regular deportation flights, but Cuba had agreed to accommodate occasional groups of deportees.
Regular deportations of Cubans have been halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the United States continued to deport small numbers of Cubans through commercial airlines, a separate US 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 suspended, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.
The resumption of ICE deportation flights to Cuba could send a symbolic message to would-be migrants who normally 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 to the United States to pursue immigration cases.
Communist-run Cuba is required by previous migration deals to take in its nationals repatriated by the United States. The most recent bilateral agreement was signed in January 2017, shortly before then-President Barack Obama left office.
The US Coast Guard has continued to turn over migrants caught at sea, repatriating more than 5,600 migrants so far this year, according to official Cuban media reports.
Senior US immigration officials visited Havana this week — the highest-level US visit since historic rapprochement under former President Obama — as the migration crisis deepens.
U.S. authorities detained more than 2.2 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2022, more than any other year on record. Of those, about 1 million were quickly expelled to Mexico or other countries under a pandemic-era order known as Title 42. But only 2 percent of Cubans arrested at the border were deported in fiscal 2022.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Ted Hesson in Washington; Edited by Mica Rosenberg and Sandra Maler
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