As part of the October 17, 2016 changes to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), there is a limited relaxation of travel restrictions between the US and Cuba. However, travel to Cuba remains highly regulated for US Citizens, US permanent residents (green card holders), and foreign nationals within the US. Conversely, Cubans are eligible for most standard US immigration options. In practice the US-Cuba history, and availability of special immigration relief for Cubans who reach the US, creates unique challenges for Cuban travel to the US.
Adversarial History Increases Need for Planning
As requirements on US-Cuba travel begin to ease, along with economic sanctions and export control restriction modifications, US businesses are looking to Cuba for growth opportunities. Such businesses, as well as research and educational institutions, may reach a point where they will want or need Cuban nationals to travel to the US in a business-related capacity. The country-specific challenges faced by Cubans in seeking to travel to the US temporarily must be incorporated into business planning.
Businesses accustomed to working with foreign counterparts who are eligible to travel to the US on the visa waiver (ESTA) program for meetings, conferences, and similar activities face a very different reality with Cuban nationals. The visa waiver (ESTA) option is available only to nationals from designated countries whose citizens have historically demonstrated high rates of compliance with US immigration laws. Cuba, for obvious reasons, is not on that list.
Policy Changes for B-1 Visas for Cubans
A Cuban national seeking to travel to the US for temporary, business-related purposes will need to apply for a B-1 (business visitor) visa. The US consular section in Havana accepts and adjudicates the full range of US visa classifications. However, history dictates vastly different considerations for Cubans in the visa process as compared to nationals from most other countries.
On the plus side, in 2013, the US began issuing five-year, multiple-entry, B-1 (business visitor) and B-2 (visitor for pleasure) visas to Cuban nationals. This, combined with the lifting of decades-old Cuban exit visa requirements, helped facilitate travel to the US for tens of thousands of Cubans. Newspapers at the time were filled with stories of family reunions after decades of separation.
Cuba: Second Highest B-1 and B-2 Denial Rate Worldwide
These notable improvements do not mean that all Cubans can easily obtain B-1 visas. To the contrary, Cubans experienced a 76% denial rate for B visa applications in Fiscal Year 2015. This denial rate is the second highest globally. Additionally, as of this writing, the reported waiting time for a visa interview appointment for this category exceeded 100 days. All other temporary visa classifications showed only a one day wait for an appointment in Cuba.
Reasons for Denial Rate
Cuba’s high B visa denial rate is tied to the requirement of non-immigrant (temporary) intent. Applicants have the burden of establishing that they will leave the US at the end of their visit, in compliance with the terms of the category. Adjudications of both B-1/B-2 applications include consideration of home country conditions, as well as the applicant’s personal circumstances and reasons for seeking to travel to the US. Younger applicants are often denied due to doubts as to their intent to leave the US and return to Cuba after their trip. This concern, in turn, is heightened by the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) which extends liberal eligibility for permanent resident (green card) status to Cubans who can reach US shores.
Improvements Likely in Time
In time, as conditions in Cuba change, and US-Cuba relations improve, the B visa denial rate should also decrease. When there is more opportunity in the home country, the likelihood that its citizens will return voluntarily increases, as does the chance of B-1/B-2 approval. The same improvement should be seen in the many other temporary visa categories which also require non-immigrant intent. Visa appointment wait times are tied to staffing and physical capacity issues, as well as priorities. In time, these issues will also need to be addressed at the US Embassy in Havana.
Planning and Support
In light of these challenges, companies will need to engage in immigration-related planning well in advance of the need for the individual’s presence in the US. In addition to the extraordinary waiting times for visa appointments, applicants will need more company support than is typically required. Companies which have previously supported B-1 applicants with only a standard letter verifying the need for the individual in the US for a B-1 purpose should expect to do more in cases of travel from Cuba. With a 76% denial rate, applications must be well thought out and fully documented. Applicants are regularly judged, often very quickly, during the visa interview. They must be prepared appropriately to improve their likelihood of success in this process.
Finally, the B-1 is only one of many US visa categories. While it is typically the easiest and most appropriate visa option for short-term, business-related travel to the US, for Cubans, it may be necessary to consider other categories and options. This, too, requires advance planning and more company support than usual.