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Cubans Find Legal Route Unnavigable : Immigration: Even with a processing center in Havana, few apply to emigrate. Most applicants must have a close relative or a job in the U.S.


WASHINGTON — Why are thousands of Cuban refugees risking their lives to cross the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits when there is a legitimate way to emigrate--through the U.S. processing center in Havana?

The answer is no puzzle, according to lawyers and immigration experts: Many cannot qualify.

Although federal officials insist they want to stem the tide of would-be immigrants who are being intercepted daily by Coast Guard cutters, immigration authorities say that the alternative of filing applications through the U.S. consular office in Havana is not all that appealing to many Cubans.

"You have to qualify, which means you must have a family member legally in the United States or you must have needed skills along with a firm job offer from an American employer," according to Rosemary Jenks, senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

Prospective legal immigrants must be willing to accept the frequent harassment that comes from Cuban security forces who keep watch over applicants entering the U.S. Interests Section, Jenks said. The intended immigrants often are harassed at that site or later in their neighborhoods after they have applied for visas, she said.

On the other hand, many boat people clearly believe that political pressure, applied by Cuban Americans and others, will mount on the Administration to begin admitting those held in detention, possibly by returning to a policy that was in effect for three decades until overturned last week. Under that policy, Cubans who reached U.S. soil were almost automatically granted special status and allowed to remain in the United States.

Louisa Parker of the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform added another reason for risky raft ventures into the Florida Straits: "Many Cubans are seeking political asylum and they know they can't get it through the U.S. office in Havana. That's because they can't show they have a well-founded fear of persecution, which is what you must prove to qualify as a political asylee."

The irony confronting the death-defying rafters is that only 3,000 Cubans a year apply for visas through legitimate channels--a fraction of the 27,845 annual slots that are open for legal immigrants from Cuba.

But Pat Trubiano, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that legal applicants sometimes must expect their processing to take months and they must be attentive to rules of eligibility.

The easiest path to the United States, she said, is for Cubans whose close relatives already are U.S. citizens. In such cases, the U.S. relative begins the immigration process by filing a petition with the INS for the family member still in Cuba.

After about three months of processing, the application goes to the State Department, which notifies the would-be immigrant to contact its office in Havana, Trubiano said. A medical examination then is required to make certain that the applicant has no dangerous, contagious disease. And police clearance is required to confirm that there are no convictions for violent crimes.

At that point, spouses, small children and parents of U.S. citizens enjoy almost immediate entry to the United States and promptly become permanent resident immigrants, or green-card holders, authorities said. They may later apply for U.S. citizenship.

But for those who have no relatives who are U.S. citizens, having an employable skill is about the only ticket to the United States. Even so, authorities said, a job contract or written promise of employment is usually a necessity.

But prospective legal immigrants, however long they may have to wait, have a crucial edge over those who continue to attempt the 90-mile trip to Florida in rickety boats, according to federal officials. That is because all the intercepted Cubans sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay have no chance of U.S. residency, Clinton Administration officials insist.

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