By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American and Cuban officials are due to meet in Washington on Thursday to discuss migration concerns, people familiar with the matter said, in the highest-level formal U.S. talks with Havana since President Joe Biden took office last year.
The meeting comes at a time when Biden's administration is grappling with rising numbers of migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border from Mexico, with Cubans making up a growing portion of them.
Tensions between Washington and Havana over the Cuban government's crackdown on protests, continuing American sanctions on the Communist-ruled island and other issues have made it difficult for the countries to cooperate on challenges such as irregular migration.
Leading the Cuban delegation will be Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, two sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The delegation is expected to meet with senior officials of the U.S. State Department and other agencies.
The United States wants Cuba to take back more deportees from among the record numbers of Cubans arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border, according to a U.S. official and another source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Cuban government has not accepted deportation flights carrying Cubans from the United States for more than six months, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson said. As of March 26, there were about 40,000 Cubans in the United States with a final deportation order from an immigration judge, according to the spokesperson.
Cuba has said it supports legal, orderly and safe migration. It blames the United States for the uptick in irregular migration, saying Cold War-era sanctions and a decision to close the American consular section in Havana encourage Cubans to seek riskier routes off the island.
The State Department last month said it would again begin processing some visas for Cubans in Havana to start reducing the backlog after a four-year hiatus, but progress has been slow.
"We have seen a significant increase in irregular Cuban migrants to the United States, both via land and maritime routes," a State Department spokesperson said.
The spokesperson, who asked not to be named, declined to confirm the planned meeting but said "we regularly engage with Cuban officials on issues of importance to the U.S. government, such as human rights and migration."
Thursday's planned talks appear to be at a higher level than known formal contacts since Biden took office in January 2021.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.
The talks are scheduled to be held just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and regional counterparts are due to wrap up a conference on migration in Panama. Cuba is not due to attend that conference.
A record number of migrants attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexican border during Biden's first year in office. American officials are preparing for even higher numbers this year.
Amid Cuba's faltering economy, after Nicaragua lifted visa requirements for Cubans in November, many dropped everything, sold their homes and took a flight for Managua, with hopes of joining the mainland "migrant highway" north through Central America to the United States.
Nicaragua, a close regional ally of Cuba, said the move was intended to promote commercial exchange, tourism and humanitarian family relations.
Initial fervor has been followed by frustration as the United States has undertaken a regional effort to curb border crossings.
U.S. border authorities apprehended more than 32,000 Cubans at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, roughly double the 16,500 caught in February, then the highest single-month total on record, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
Even as the United States and Cuba prepare to re-engage on migration, Biden administration officials are mindful that any easing of restrictions on Cuba could lead to political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, a key voting bloc in south Florida.
Former President Donald Trump rolled back a historic rapprochement that his predecessor Barack Obama oversaw between the United States and its old Cold War foe.
Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, promised during the 2020 U.S. election campaign against Trump to re-engage with Cuba, and many in both countries expected he would reverse some Trump-era restrictions. Biden instead imposed fresh sanctions on Cuban officials in response to Havana's crackdown on protesters following widespread marches on the island last July.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Cuban cities, voicing anger over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by authorities. Some called for political change.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Dave Sherwood in Havana and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Michael Perry)