Diego is 34 years old. Since mid-February he began the procedures to benefit from the “Humanitarian Parole Process for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.” The policy has been applied by the Biden administration since January 5, 2023 with the aim of reducing the number of migrants entering the United States illegally through the southern border. The program is a replica of the one aimed at the Ukrainian population, “Uniting for Ukraine,” and was tested with Venezuelan migrants in 2022.
The particularity of this variant lies in conditioning the eligibility of applicants to having a “support person” or “sponsor” who is financially responsible for those who intend to settle in the United States. The beneficiaries are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and receive authorization to travel and settle in the country for two years, with a work permit upon arrival.
Under the initiative, the approval of 30,000 people per month was announced, although the number of “beneficiaries” for each of the countries included in the Program is not specified. So far it is known that around 14,000 Cubans have benefited from it.
In this context, Diego’s brother, who has lived in Florida for four years, urged him to obtain his, his wife’s, and their mother’s passports to start the “parole” process. With this, the family has joined the thousands of Cubans who have begun the procedure to live in the United States. According to the opinions and experiences published on social networks so far, the process can be lengthy and casuistic.
Looking for opportunities
A resident of Marianao, Diego, self-employed and with incomplete senior high studies, told me that as soon as his brother talked about the possibility of claiming them, he agreed. The 34-year-old has subsisted in recent times doing simultaneous jobs: he has been a messenger for enterprises that distribute food and hardware products in Havana and a waiter in a private business.
He confesses that “neither the body nor the money is enough to make ends meet, no one can bear these prices…and I know that there are people who don’t have anything to eat. Look, I have to take a bus to make deliveries from one side of Havana to the other: I start in Alamar and end who knows where, not to mention the lines and the struggle to get food. There are no options here. At least over there [United States] the salary helps you live a little better and working the same. In Cuba there are no opportunities, you work for nothing, you struggle and struggle and you have nothing, you end up with nothing. Over there at least they pay you better.” This is why Diego decided to “take advantage of this ‘parole’ thing to have a better future.”
Diego, like so many other Cubans, is focused on carrying out the necessary steps to successfully reach the United States, a place that he perceives as the door to new opportunities: “I know that I can do anything, whatever it takes to earn a living over there. That is why I am focused on completing the procedures as quickly as possible; above all, because rumor has it that this will end,” he says, alluding to the lawsuit filed by various U.S. governors to stop the Program.1
Faced with the threat of its termination, he and many people in Cuba are looking for options to shorten bureaucratic times and obtain a passport as quickly as possible. Once the document is obtained, the person who acts as sponsor can start the process on the electronic portal of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which implies opening an account on the USCIS page and filling out Form I-134A, Online Request to be a Supporter and Declaration of Financial Support. There, the sponsor must refer and demonstrate with the required documentation that he has an income greater than 125% per year, according to the number of household members.
The income value per person is determined by the Federal Poverty Guidelines of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In the process, the beneficiaries must be included as members of the benefactor’s household, even if in practice they will not reside there, in addition to property and other assets that may favor the approval of the application so that the beneficiaries can travel and settle in the United States. Once the economic feasibility has been evaluated so that future migrants do not become a public burden, the information reaches the sponsor and the beneficiary, as well as the admission and travel permit for the latter.
For those unfamiliar with the jargon and complex U.S. immigration bureaucracy, the procedures are often confusing. They also require a variety of resources (information, money, lawyers) to reduce waiting times. On the other hand, as can be seen in different groups on the subject that have appeared on social networks, misleading information abounds. In addition, the permanent threat of the closure of the initiative has increased concern and stress among those who are living the process.
While in the streets of the island the discomfort is felt in the pockets and kitchens, the social networks are abuzz because of the parole.
In the “Internet planet” there are people finding out about the process in general; looking for sponsors; requesting help to fill out forms; wanting to know the necessary steps for the process to be successful; asking about the documentation that is necessary to take to the United States (vaccination cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc.); looking for processors and the cost of their services; and a long etcetera of matters.
Everyone has the expectation that their immigration efforts will come to fruition; all share the stress and anguish of the process; everyone is excited to arrive in the United States for “the long-awaited reunion,” “to have a better future” or “to get out of this damned place, where there is no electricity or gas, but what there is always is a line for everything,” as referred by some interviewees in Cuba who are participating in the process.2
People from all over Cuba can be found in Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp groups: from Las Tunas, Contramaestre, Perico, Puerto Padre, Unión de Reyes, Cienfuegos, San Juan y Martínez, Artemisa, Santa Clara, El Cerro, Holguín or Santiago de Cuba. People know and recognize each other; they virtually share coffee and recipes for even lime blossom or coriander tea for stress!
They accompany each other in this exit project, more benign than that of previous months, but which implies putting other “assets” or “resources” into operation: turning to a relative or friend who agrees to be a “sponsor”; take pictures; find a processor to help them; start the passport process — a process that is taking months; while the imponderables of national daily life are suffered, such as the lack of electricity, Internet connection, or both.
To emigrate to the United States, it is no longer a question, as in previous months, of looking no matter where for the necessary money — which used to amount to thousands of dollars — to pay for a ticket to another country, usually Nicaragua, and start from there “ the crossing”: a journey by land that involved crossing the national borders of several countries and traveling on inhospitable and dangerous roads to arrive at the southern border of the United States and surrender to the Border Patrol.
Informal migrant economy
Although the costs of the process are heterogeneous, sponsors in the United States can carry out the free process through the USCIS page and, if necessary, hire the services of a law firm, whose rates fluctuate due to the prices of the agency and the type of legal/immigration issue in the case.
But, in addition, “the informal economy and migratory procedures” have flourished and diversified, now in a transnational key. Workers from institutions such as the Identity Card advance their turn in “virtual lines” for a cost of $50 or more; people looking for sponsors among the compatriots in the United States who, in case of not having family, friends or charitable souls to help in that function, can carry out the procedure for a price of 2,000 dollars or more; people who help in the preparation and entry to the USCIS portal of the required documentation of sponsors and beneficiaries (complete process), whose cost can amount to 100 dollars, or 2,000/3,000 Cuban pesos in the case of beneficiaries only, once the sponsor initiated the process from the United States.
If the amount of the trip is added to this, which depends on the destination city and the airline, the monetary cost of the parole is less than what was invested to arrive at the southern border of the United States and much less dangerous, even if it implies enduring delays of the USCIS administrative procedures and the stress of waiting while there is a risk that the program is closed.
Immigration waiting days
For Cubans residing on the island who are waiting for parole, settling in the United States means improving their living conditions, being reunited with their family. There is no shortage of those who mention in the virtual groups that their objective is to “escape from the hell that the island has become.” Some lament, after having arrived in the United States, the decision made, since they have had to leave “the others” behind, and they express it with pain.
In the virtual groups in which I have participated as a researcher, in addition to the cup of coffee that accompanies and embraces, the act of comforting in the face of the unknown and contingent is present, and the joking and “fucking around” to look on the bright side. Jokes, phrases, memes, even songs about the “parole” or the sponsor, remain as a memory of this recent insular migratory experience.
These days Diego, and many Cuban men and women like him, have moved to the Internet, and joined the social networks, they accompany each other and wait together. Enduring blackouts and shortages, people of all ages and places exchange information, happiness and advice until the day comes when they arrive in the land that, they think, will offer them a “little bit to eke out a living.”
1 Despite the fact that twenty states with Republican governors filed a lawsuit against the Program in February 2023, its review has been postponed, at least, until June 12, 2023. In this regard see, https://www.univision.com/local/miami-wltv/parole-humanitario-seguiria-vigente-3-meses-segun-documentos-corte-texas.
2 This information is part of the interviews and ethnographic fieldwork carried out by the author, in situ and online, for the study of Cuban migration in the 2020s.