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Humanitarian parole is reuniting a Tucson family. It's also in the crosshairs of GOP ire

It’s been almost a year since the Biden administration began rolling out a program to allow Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans to apply to come to the U.S. with the help of a sponsor here.

The process first opened to Venezuelans last October and expanded this year. 

“Individuals who are provided a safe, orderly and lawful path to the United States are less likely to risk their lives traversing thousands of miles in the hands of ruthless smugglers, only to arrive at our Southwest border and face the legal consequences of unlawful entry,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a January press conference announcing the program. 

Serguei Josevich Rodriguez remembers that moment well. Mainly because, moments later, his phone was buzzing with calls from friends and family back home in Cuba.

“One minute after they were calling me, ‘Hey Sergei, I don't have anyone in U.S. Can you be my sponsor? So, I was, uh, in, in one moment. I had like, uh, 11 people in my list,” he said.

A new chance

Rodriguez has been in Tucson for almost a decade. He’s in his 40s, with close-cut dark hair that’s speckled with gray.

He was an engineer back in Cuba and came to the U.S. with his wife and their toddler son on a diversity visa. It’s a special green card available only to nationals from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S.

Getting chosen is a little bit like winning the lottery — recipients are selected at random from more than a million yearly applicants. And Rodriguez is grateful. He’s a software engineer at IBM now, and he got his U.S. citizenship about a year ago. 

Still, it’s complicated. 

“Yeah, my thought was, wow, this is what I’ve been waiting for." — Serguei Josevich Rodriguez

“As an immigrant, you always, you know, you always think about your family, your parents, your si, your siblings in general, and, uh, you wish to provide them the best and help them,” Rodriguez said. 

Seeing the humanitarian parole program roll out this year felt to Rodriguez like a new chance.

First, unlike a lot of other immigration pathways, there’s no fee to apply. And, he says, it’s safe. It means no one has to consider the other possibility — trekking across Latin America. 

“Yeah, my thought was, wow, this is what I’ve been waiting for,” he said. 

Up to 30,000 migrants from the four countries are allowed to enter the U.S. each month. They can live and work legally here for two years on what’s called humanitarian parole. 

They must apply away from the U.S.-Mexico border, have the money to fly to the U.S. and a sponsor to support them financially.

Rodriguez knew he wouldn’t be able to help everyone who had called to ask. But the program meant he could help a few. He started with his younger sister, Yulia. 

'Everything is like a constant surprise'

She arrived in April. When I met her at her brother’s house, the space was alive with activity. In addition to Yulia, Rodriguez and his wife are sponsoring their sister-in-law and her 4-year-old daughter through the program. They’re also helping another Cuban family — here on a diversity visa — get settled into work and school. 

“I’m delighted to be here,” Yulia said. “Everything is quite new to me here, even simply walking down the street.”

She said a tearful goodbye to her family at the airport in Cuba’s capital, Havana, and flew to Miami — where she spent hours undergoing final processing. It was the first time she’d ever been outside of Cuba, or even on a plane.

“From the moment I boarded the plane for the first time, my panic, my fear began,” she said. “But also my desire to reach out and hug my brother and the family … everything is like a constant surprise.” 

She says she was able to get her work permit in a matter of weeks after arriving. She works in an optometrist’s office now and a local gallery, where some of her own work is on display. Her fiancé, another parolee from Venezuela, finally made it to Tucson to join her this month. 

Things are working out. But the program, and the humanitarian parole authority it relies upon, has also landed in the crosshairs of Republican ire around immigration.

GOP states sue over program

House Republicans lambasted the humanitarian parole process at a remote congressional hearing in Arizona’s Cochise County earlier this year. 

“The Biden administration's propaganda machine calls these unlawful parole programs, lawful pathways, make no mistake. These so-called lawful pathways are anything but lawful and our complete abuse of limited parole authority,” Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman said.

In reality, humanitarian parole isn’t illegal, and it’s not new. Presidential administrations have used the executive branch authority to enact immigrant and refugee programs for decades. Vietnamese orphans were flown to Guam using the authority back in the 1970s. Ukrainian refugees came to the U.S. on the status in 2022. 

David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the policy think tank CATO Institute, says parole has been used in 126 different programs over the last 70 years. 

“Humanitarian parole is the fallback for people who have no other path to, to come to the United States. And unfortunately, that's the vast majority of the people who are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. They're coming there because there's no other path available to them,” he said. 

Bier says that idea bears out on the ground. Customs and Border Protection Border data he analyzed in a CATO research paper published this month shows Nicaraguans, Haitians, Cubans and Venezuelans went from accounting for 38% of border apprehensions in at the end of last year to 9% this past July.  

Bier says Cuban arrests alone have dropped by more than 90%.

'I stopped feeling like an alien'

Still, the program remains on shaky ground. A group of GOP-led states filed suit against it earlier this year, arguing the program harms their states financially. 

The case went to trial last month in Texas, but no ruling has been made yet. Rodriguez says he hopes the program gets to stay. He thinks young people are still leaving Cuba for the same reasons as he did 10 years ago.

“You feel trapped. You feel like you are going nowhere, from, you know, economical point of view, from spiritual point of view,” he said. “Basically, Cubans are not only coming to the U.S, they are in Spain, they are in Italy, they are even in Haiti.” 

Rodriguez knows what it's like to move around like that. He’s half Belarusian and half Afro-Cuban, and he’s spent time in both countries. But the U.S. feels like home. 

“When, when I was in Belarus, they used to call me the Cuban guy. … When I lived in Cuba, they used to call me the Russian guy,” he said. “The U.S. is sensational because you’ll see people from all over the world. I stopped feeling like an alien. I feel like I'm in the right place.”

He says a Tucson couple he met back in Havana helped him make his way in the U.S. Now he says, he just wants the opportunity to give that chance to his family and other Cubans arriving today.

“I believe someday they will be able to help other people and, you know, and hopefully this chain will never end,” he said.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.