US sends first deportation flight to Cuba since 2020

By Ted Hesson and Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Monday sent its first deportation flight to Cuba since 2020, months after Cuba agreed for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic to accept flights carrying Cubans caught at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“On April 24, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) resumed normal removals processing for Cuban nationals who have received final orders of removal,” a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The Cuban government confirmed the flight’s arrival, saying on Twitter it included 40 Cubans intercepted in boats and 83 detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Reuters first reported late last year that Cuba agreed to give U.S. authorities a new but limited tool to deter record numbers of Cuban border crossers.

After U.S. President Joe Biden adopted more restrictive border security measures in January, the number of Cubans and other migrants caught at the border plummeted.

However the Biden administration is preparing for a possible rise in illegal crossings with COVID restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border set to lift on May 11. The administration will say more about its preparations this week, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters on Thursday.

U.S. and Cuban officials discussed migration issues earlier this month as the Biden administration braced for the end of COVID-era border restrictions that have blocked Cubans in recent months from crossing into the United States from Mexico.

The U.S. embassy in Havana resumed full immigrant visa processing and consular services in January for the first time since 2017 in a bid to stem record numbers of Cubans trying to enter the United States from Mexico.

“The United States continues to encourage Cubans to use lawful processes,” the DHS spokesperson said on Monday.

The Biden administration in January began expelling Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border back to Mexico under restrictions known as Title 42, while also opening new legal pathways for those groups.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Sonali Paul)