MIAMI (AP) — Mary Sardinas had prepared a room in her Miami house for the arrival of her son from Cuba. He'd sold his home and left his job thinking he'd soon be living in the United States. That was two years ago and he's still in Cuba.
Sardinas is among thousands of Cubans living in the United States whose hopes of reuniting with family members have been put on hold since September 2017, when the Trump administration pulled most of its embassy staff out of Cuba in response to a mysterious illness that struck at least two dozen diplomats or their relatives.
"We've been waiting for two years," said Sardinas, a 60-year-old woman who came to Florida in 2015. "Why can't we live as a family? What does he have to do? Dive in (the sea) and risk his life?" she asked. Her 41-year-old son, Jorge Luis Carrera Sardinas, had passed his final interview for the permit and was just waiting to go to the embassy to receive it.
For most of the decades after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, Cubans fleeing the communist-governed island enjoyed unique immigration privileges, including an almost certain path to legal residence once they touched US territory.
But the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama cancelled that policy in January 2017 and the Trump administration's consular shutdown later that year means that legal migration has been severely restricted.
The U.S. government's Cuban Family Reunification Parole program remains in place, but there are no consular officials on the island to process the cases and authorities haven't announced any other place where the paperwork can be filed, though other sorts of visas can be handled in countries such as Colombia or Guyana.
It's also not clear when the diplomats might return. Officials still haven't determined what caused the diplomatic illnesses, though they have referred to them as "attacks." And the Trump administration's hard line both on Cuba's communist government and on immigration in general makes it unclear whether it wants to restart the programs at all.
The administration has suspended a political asylum program for Cubans, and tourism visas have fallen from a little over 16,000 in 2017 to about 7,000 last year. Those visas are more restrictive, too: As of March, they allow a single visit within a three month period instead of multiple entries over five years. And with Havana consulate closed, Cubans have to travel to a third country to get one.
"It all seems like a package of measures to put more pressure" on the Cuban government, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "The collateral damage is that it makes hostages of Cubans who are trying to emigrate and cannot do so as they did in the past."
While the squeeze may please immigration hardliners, some analysts say the shift carries a political risk for Trump. Florida — where many Cuban-Americans are based — is potentially crucial to an electoral college victory in the 2020 presidential race.
"Many Cubans are not happy with the current policies," said Andy Gomez, former director of the Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Especially affected are those who arrived in recent decades and have closer family ties to the island than the Cubans who came immediately after Castro took power, a group that had been deeply conservative.
"The majority of these Cubans, if they are squeezed further, may not vote for Trump in 2020," he said in Spanish.
The family reunion program allows about 20,000 Cubans to come to the U.S. each year with a special permission known as a parole, which is granted more quickly than an actual immigration visa.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says about 20,000 of those cases had been approved — but required final processing — when consular services were suspended. Thousands of other cases have gone unprocessed since then.
"These families that were applying — some of them in the final interview process — have remained in limbo," immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen said in a telephone interview. "That creates enormous uncertainty."
Maira Gómez, a 66-year-old who was granted political refugee status, arrived from Cuba in 2011 and also has been trying to get one of her three sons to the United States. She started the process in 2014 and said her son Eugenio Bello Gómez was awaiting his final interview. Two other sons also are trying to come, and their cases too are stalled.
"I need at least one of my sons," said Gómez, who lives in Washington state. She has high blood pressure, needs a knee operation and can barely walk.
The consular shutdown also affects another class of Cubans: the families of doctors who abandoned Cuban medical missions abroad and were allowed to come to the U.S. as refugees. While that program ended before Trump took office, there are still some 450 family members who have been approved to come to the U.S., but whose cases are stalled, according to U.S. officials.
Dr. Yamileisi Suárez, 43, said she hasn't seen her husband or her 7-year-old son in three years. She had skipped out of a Cuban medical mission in the Seychelles Islands, finally arrived in Pennsylvania in April 2017 and applied to have her husband and son join her.
With emigration seemingly imminent, the husband sold the family car and home. But his interview with consular officials was delayed — first by the arrival of a hurricane and then by the consular closure.
"I feel powerless," Suárez said. "The days pass and my son asks me, 'Momma, haven't they told you anything?' It hurts a lot." She said she fears she would be jailed if she returns to Cuba because the government punishers doctors who leave the island without permission or abandon the overseas missions.
For Sardinas, who has been waiting for her son, daughter-in-law and 5-year-old grandchild, it's the uncertainty that's the hardest.
"They don't live here nor there," she said. "They are families whose lives are halted and they don't know what will happen."