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Newly arrived Cuban doctors face immigration delays

 

Cuban doctors trying to get into asylum program are finding barriers over membership in the Communist Party when they were young.

 

Alfonso Chardy, The Miami Herald

 

Dozens of Cuban doctors encouraged to defect to the United States now face delays in obtaining green cards and citizenship because they joined the Communist Party or affiliated organizations in Cuba when they were young, according to South Florida immigration lawyers and immigrant rights activists.

 

The delays are an unexpected problem for some of the doctors who had hoped to be received with open arms under a program launched by the Bush administration in 2006 as a way to undermine Cuba’s “doctor diplomacy,” a popular program under which thousands of doctors are deployed to foreign countries. One of the largest contingents is in Venezuela, one of Cuba’s closest allies.

 

A statement from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not address the issue of delays, but said that every application for immigration benefits is weighed and decided on its merits.

 

“USCIS adjudicates all petitions and applications for immigration benefits individually based on the evidence provided and immigration law, while ensuring that we do not sacrifice national security, efficiency or quality,’’ the USCIS statement said.

 

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Miami Republican who is chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, promised to look into the matter.

 

“I will contact the immigration authorities to learn more about this citizenship problem, because what I have is anecdotal evidence from families impacted by this barrier,’’ said Ros-Lehtinen in an e-mail to El Nuevo Herald. “These Cuban doctors are freedom-seekers who don’t want to lie but wish to take advantage of this great asylum program especially designed for them. The Cuban tyranny shamelessly uses Cuban doctors as its international medical propaganda, and the U.S. should help these asylum seekers who are tired of the regime’s lies.”

 

Disclosure of the immigration hurdles is only the latest problem faced by defecting Cuban doctors. Recently many of them complained they were having difficulties revalidating medical credentials in the United States, because Cuba refuses to release their certification documents.

 

Immigrant rights activists and lawyers who are helping Cuban doctors said delays in obtaining green cards and citizenship add to the bureaucratic obstacles the medical defectors encounter once they arrive in the United States.

 

Green cards are particularly important to establish permanent immigration status, especially at a time when Florida is engaged in a major debate on increased state controls of undocumented immigrants. Residence is also essential for anyone planning to live and work in the United States permanently.

 

Cuban migrants generally can apply for a green card after more than a year in the United States. But those who acknowledge membership in the Communist Party face delays or denials.

 

For example, one doctor who defected in Venezuela less than two years ago and applied for his green card after more than a year had his application denied after he acknowledged joining the Union of Young Communists at age 14.

 

The doctor’s attorney, Tal Winer of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), said he’s now working on a legal strategy to help his client secure his green card later.

 

FIAC is one of at least two organizations working with Cuban doctors whose applications have been delayed or denied over membership in the Cuban Communist Party or affiliated organizations. The other group is Solidarity without Borders led by Dr. Julio Cesar Alfonso, which assists defecting doctors resettle in the United States.

 

Questions about party membership remain on residence and citizenship application forms, as relics from the Cold War, when the United States deemed communism its chief enemy. Truthful answers are required or applicants may face prosecution and loss of residence and citizenship if officials prove they lied.

 

“This is an unpleasant situation for these professionals,’’ said Alfonso, executive director of Solidarity without Borders. “These organizations, the Communist Party and the Union of Young Communists, are enemies of democracy, but it should be taken into account that these professionals join these organizations not because they believe in Communism but because they need to do it to survive.”

 

Alfonso estimated that perhaps 10 percent of the 1,500 to 2,000 Cuban doctors who have defected to the United States since 2006 have experienced delays in obtaining immigration benefits.

 

Ira Kurzban, a prominent Miami immigration attorney, said he has seen “a couple of similar cases” in his office.

 

“It’s happening,” he added.

 

Cuban doctors who defected to the United States before the 2006 program faced similar delays, but the cases were more sporadic because the number of Cuban doctors arriving then was small.

 

None of the Cuban doctors affected by the delays was willing to be interviewed, but immigrant rights advocates familiar with the matter described some of the cases.

 

Alfonso said two young dentists who defected in Venezuela about two years ago endured delays in getting their green cards. In one case, Alfonso said, the application was denied. In the other, the applicant experienced a delay but ultimately received her green card.

 

According to federal law, people who belonged to the Communist Party or affiliated organizations within 10 years immediately preceding the filing of a naturalization petition or within five years for a residence application are barred from citizenship and residency.

 

Waivers and exemptions are based on whether the applicant joined the organization when he or she was very young or whether membership was necessary to obtain employment, food or “other essentials of living,” according to federal regulations.