Monday, June 1, 2015

Immigration Law: La Perla de las Antillas

By Maria del Carmen Ramos

Now that summer is here, hopefully most of us are planning our vacations. Although most summers, I return to my native Puerto Rico to visit family and spend time at the beach, I’m always reading the newspaper (digitally these days) to look for new places to travel. If you’ve been reading the news over the past several months, you may have seen quite a few articles about a new Caribbean destination for travelers: Cuba.

For over 50 years, travel to Cuba has been regulated under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. Under those the regulations, people subject to U.S. jurisdiction must be licensed to travel to, from, or within Cuba. Licenses are generally available for only 12 categories of travel: family visits, official government business, journalistic activity, professional research and meetings, educational activities, religious activities, public performances or competitions, support for the Cuban people, humanitarian projects, activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes, transmission of information or informational materials, and certain export transactions. Finally, the regulations generally restrict the types of transactions a person can engage in while in Cuba.

Licenses are either general or specific. If a person meets the requirements for travel to Cuba under one of those 12 categories, then he or she is entitled to a general license. If a traveler does not meet the specific regulatory requirements for one of the 12 categories, he or she can apply to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which administers the regulations, for a specific license. General licenses, which do not require an application to OFAC, make travel to Cuba far easier.

Recently, OFAC (an arm of the Treasury Department) promulgated amended regulations implementing changes to our foreign relations with Cuba that President Obama announced in December, which were intended to make it easier for Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba. In particular, travel previously authorized by specific license will be authorized by general license. The recent amendments to the regulations also eliminate the need for air carriers and travel agents to obtain a specific license from OFAC to do business; eliminate the per diem cap on spending by Cuban travelers; and permit travelers to Cuba to use debit and credit cards.

If you’re interested in traveling to Cuba for tourism, though, don’t start packing your bags just yet. Although the current administration has eased travel restriction to Cuba, tourist travel is still not permitted. But travel to Cuba is expected to increase under the relaxed travel restrictions. Immigration practitioners would be wise to familiarize themselves with the many changes under the recently promulgated amendments. In the meantime, here’s hoping you have a relaxing summer wherever your travel may take you.