- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bush administration is preparing to ease some immigration rules for Cubans who want to live in the United States, focusing largely on reuniting families now separated by politics and the sea.

Bolstered by Fidel Castro’s surprise handoff of power, the draft plans seek to discourage a mass migration from Cuba over choppy waters — a journey that violates current immigration law and risks lives. But administration officials said they also hope the relaxed rules will prompt Cubans to push the Castro regime for official permission to head to the United States.

While stressing that any policy shift was not yet final, administration officials said the changes could be announced as early as this week.

“Taken together, they promote safe, legal and orderly migration, while they also support the Cuban people in their aspirations for a free and prosperous society,” says a draft copy of Homeland Security Department talking points obtained Monday by the Associated Press.

The Homeland Security Department oversees U.S. immigration policy.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday that administration officials are circulating draft changes but no decision has been made yet. He said the administration is preparing in case a major change does take place in Cuba.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a potential Republican presidential candidate, yesterday praised the tentative plans as a “great change.”

The policy shift would help “create a wave of change for the Cuban people currently living under the yoke of despotism to rise up and demand their freedom,” the Tennessee Republican said. “I encourage the administration to continue to show leadership at a time when the Cuban people need it most.”

The administration has been tight-lipped about any changes since an ailing Mr. Castro stunned the world by temporarily ceding power a week ago to his brother Raul so Fidel could undergo surgery. U.S. officials say they fear any signal of a relaxed immigration policy could trigger a mass migration from Cuba.

To discourage Cubans from setting off for the United States by boat or raft, the administration is considering plans to cancel or reject visa applications from those who are caught trying to sneak in. Currently, Cubans stopped at sea are returned home or taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay for asylum interviews if necessary, but they do not face any penalties if they apply for visas in the future.

An estimated 125,000 Cubans fled the island in April 1980, followed by 40,000 more in August 1994. U.S. officials say fewer than 1,000 Cubans now reach American shores by sea annually.

Under the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain, while those intercepted at sea are sent home. It is unknown how many attempt the risky voyage and don’t make it.

The documents indicate that measures to help more Cubans immigrate to the United States were under discussion before the longtime leader stepped aside. “The administration has been considering possible changes for some time,” noted a list of potential questions and answers included in the Homeland Security talking points.

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