U.S. officials have eased immigration rules for some Cubans seeking to leave the island to join family members who are U.S. residents.

The Department of Homeland Security says the new rules announced Friday are intended to increase chances for the reunification of families.

Officials say the changes allow U.S. residents to seek expedited visas for family members in Cuba, and will help relieve a backlog in immigration requests.

They say 7500 so-called family visas will be available. Washington issues a total of about 20,000 visas to Cubans each year.

Cuba's government must grant exit visas for people seeking to leave the island.

U.S. officials also said they are seeking to increase the punishments for human smugglers using maritime routes.

Bush administration officials have repeatedly called on Cubans in recent weeks to avoid making illegal boat crossings to the United States.