MIAMI - Yoandri Pavot applied just in time for a visa under a recently scrapped U.S. policy that had long welcomed doctors from Cuba who defected while on assignment in third countries.
Pavot and other Cuban doctors arriving this week in Miami under the now canceled policy called the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole said they're relieved to be arriving despite uncertain times for immigrants under the Trump administration. But they're anxious about colleagues left behind.
"I still can't believe it. Pinch me. Pinch me. I can't believe I am here," Pavot, 35, said after arriving Monday at Miami International Airport holding a small American flag. "I wish they would give the ones left behind a chance because they are also fighting for freedom."
The program - begun in 2006 by then President George W. Bush - allowed Cuban doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to defect to the U.S. while on their government's mandatory assignments abroad. Pavot said he had applied after the Cuban government dispatched him to a crime-ridden area of Venezuela, where many co-workers were attacked.
The waning administration of President Barack Obama canceled the doctors' policy Jan. 12. It also eliminated the better-known "wet foot, dry foot" policy that gave any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil a path to become a legal resident. The moves lined up with Obama's push for a more normalized relationship with communist Cuba.
But doctors who already applied for visas before Jan. 12 are being allowed in, and the final wave of those accepted are arriving on flights to Miami this week, said Julio Cesar Alfonso, director of a nonprofit that helps Cuban doctors resettle in the U.S.
On Monday, a few walked through glass doors past Customs to loud cheers and hugs from close and distant relatives carrying flowers and balloons. They cried and took photos.
Alfonso said 20 professionals arrived Monday and more are expected on flights this week.
Some critics of the doctors' policy have said it amounted to a more than decade-long brain drain for Cuba. But proponents said the doctors were forced by the Cuban government to toil overseas under often-grueling conditions and deserved to be liberated.
The repeal of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy was welcomed by many in the Cuban exile community who accused certain recent arrivals of abusing privileges by claiming federal benefits and then traveling back to Cuba. But many of the same criticized the cancellation of the medical defectors program; they're urging the Trump administration to restore it.
Under the policy, qualifying medical professions could immediately apply for work permission and apply for residency after one year.
President Donald Trump has not established what, if anything, will change regarding Cuba policy. Press secretary Sean Spicer said last week the administration is reviewing its position with Havana.
Cuba's doctors abroad program has earned praise from the World Health Organization for responding to the Ebola outbreak in Africa and to natural disasters such as Haiti's 2010 earthquake.
Yet its critics are fierce.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican U.S. representative born in Cuba, said the Cuban doctors worked under "modern-day indentured servitude" and that the defector program was "undermining the Castro regime by providing an outlet for Cuban doctors to seek freedom from forced labor."
Some critics also say the Cuban government exploits medical professionals abroad by taking away most of the wages paid by foreign governments and using the funds as a source of hard currency for the island.
Alfonso said hundreds of doctors are currently stranded in Colombia, after deserting their missions in Venezuela, and many didn't manage to apply in time.
"It's really sad that Obama left that legacy with the Cuban community, favoring the Havana regime and crushing the hopes of a group of professionals who want to be free," he said.
Yerenia Cedeno, a 28-year-old general practitioner, said she deserted her mission in Venezuela because of violence and meager pay that sometimes wasn't enough to buy food.
Although she had applied for a visa before Jan. 12, she thought her chances of reaching the U.S. were slim once the program was canceled.
"I am immensely relieved because when we saw the program ended, we lost hope. Then we got the visa, and I was so happy," Cedeno said after arriving at the Miami airport. "We can say that we were saved."