By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA (Reuters) -A U.S. government delegation met Cuban officials in Havana on Wednesday to discuss Washington's concerns about irregular migration from the island, marking the highest-level known U.S. visit since the historic rapprochement under former President Barack Obama.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur Jaddou held talks with Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio at the embassy in Havana, and detailed plans to resume "full immigrant visa processing" on Jan. 4. The moves were outlined in September.
"This is the highest-level, public visit of U.S. officials to Cuba during the Biden administration," a State Department spokesperson said of Wednesday's trip to the Communist-ruled island.
It "shows the commitment and work of the administration to create secure, safe, and orderly avenues for migration," the spokesperson added.
Migration talks between the two countries resumed in April after a long hiatus following "anomalous health incidents" in Havana that affected a number of staff at the U.S. and Canadian embassies, a phenomenon dubbed "Havana Syndrome."
The gravity of the migration crisis, spurred by a devastating economic downturn in Cuba that has led to acute shortages of food, fuel and medicine, have also forced a restart of conversations between the two long-time rivals.
U.S. authorities detained 220,000 Cubans at the U.S.-Mexico border from Oct. 1, 2021-Sept. 30, 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, shattering records set by prior immigration crises, including the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.
The United States wants Cuba to take back more deportees from among those arriving at the border, Reuters reported in April.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a query on whether deportation was discussed on Wednesday.
Cubans have also increasingly been taking to the sea, risking their lives in homemade boats to cross the Straits of Florida. Since Oct. 1, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 1,588 migrants attempting the crossing.
Bitter said on Twitter that she met de Cossio to discuss "expansion of consular operations in Cuba."
Cuba's foreign ministry said de Cossio reiterated the importance of restoring visa processing at the embassy and Cuba's readiness for any "necessary steps" to assist.
A State Department spokesman said the U.S. delegation had separately raised the "human rights situation" on the island during discussions with its Cuban counterparts, and urged Cuba "to release political prisoners."
Relations between the neighboring countries took a turn for the worse following widespread anti-government protests on the island in July of 2021. The Biden administration has lambasted Cuba for what it calls human rights violations following those rallies.
Cuba says those detained during and after protests had violated Cuban law and received fair trials and sentences.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood in Havana and Matt Spetalnick and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast & Shri Navaratnam)