The United States announced a new policy Wednesday for Cuban visitors to the United States that will make non-immigrant visas valid for five years instead of the current six months, and good for multiple entries.

The change for non-immigrant B-2 visas issued to Cubans for family visits, medical treatment, tourism or other personal travel takes effect Thursday and will allow Cubans who qualify for the visas to come and go.

Now, eligible Cubans will be able to visit South Florida — or anywhere in the United States — for the holidays, return for a family wedding or come to tend to a sick relative without applying in person for a new visa each time.

“The Obama administration believes these measures, in addition to others, will increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba and enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The change also “removes procedural and financial burdens on Cuban travelers,” the spokesperson said.

The new policy also is expected to reduce the workload at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which handles U.S. affairs in Cuba.

Until recently, it could take two to three years for Cubans who wanted to visit their families in the United States to get an interview for a B-2 visa. Upon returning to Cuba from a family visit, many immediately applied for a visa interview for their next trip, knowing they were in for a long wait.

Streamlining procedures and the addition of some temporary consular workers helped to reduce the backlog. The waiting time for an interview is currently about 5 1/2 months.

The State Department spokesman said the change, which is outlined on the U.S. Interests Section website, will further reduce the waiting time for visa-interview appointments.

“For those who want to go back and forth, this is a much easier process,” said Vivian Mannerud, whose Miami company Airline Brokers sells tickets for charter flights to Cuba. “For those who have no intention of staying or defecting, it’s a wonderful thing.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, also hailed the change: “The announcement of multiple-entry visas for Cubans is a step in the right direction that strengthens families and supports our nation’s values.”

The United States was quick to point out the new visa policy did not represent a change in the eligibility criteria for B-2 visas, which are not granted to those considered potential immigrants or who want to work in the United States.

“Of course, all visa applicants will continue to undergo a rigorous review to ensure they are qualified for a visa. Applicants not qualified for visas will not be issued visas,” said the State Department spokesperson.

In practice, those who get the B-2 visas are generally retired Cubans or those considered to have ties that bind them to the island and make their return very likely.

“The average grandmother isn’t considered a security risk,” said Mannerud.

Cubans who want to remain in the United States have the option of applying for asylum and becoming permanent residents a year later under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The U.S. Interests Section also said that the length of stay under the multiple-entry visa would be determined by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the port-of-entry for each trip. The multiple-entry visas of those who exceed their authorized stays will be automatically canceled unless the visa-holder applies for an extension in a timely manner or has a pending application for a change in status that is “not frivolous,” according to the U.S. Interests Section.

Cubans who have recently been issued single-entry, six-month visas will not be able to exchange them or convert them into new multiple-entry visas.

(c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: cuba, usa, visas