HAVANA -- The door slammed shut behind Gloria 11 months after she left Cuba for Miami in mid-2011. Close to her dream of obtaining American residency, she ignored her government's deadline to return home and gave up her rights as a Cuban.
"It was a terrible moment," said Gloria, 40, a former shop assistant, by telephone from Miami, who asked that her full name not be used because she feared publicity might jeopardize her immigration status. "I didn't know whether things here would work out or not, but there was no going back."
Until now, that is. New Cuban migration rules that take effect today will allow islanders to spend more time overseas before they forfeit their Cuban residency, a concession that reflects the government's desire for closer ties with millions of Cubans who live abroad.
The rules, part of a package that loosens despised restrictions on the freedom to travel, could allow thousands of Cubans to shuttle between the United States and home in much the way that Mexican migrants do and could create a class of economic emigres worlds apart from the exiles who oppose closer ties.
Since the 1960s, the Cuban government has strictly controlled travel, and most Cubans who moved overseas without special permission have lost their rights and property. The many who do return for visits may stay on the island for only a month (or three, under the new regulations) and are not allowed to buy property or invest in private businesses there, though many do under the table.
The new rules -- among the most anticipated changes introduced by President Raul Castro -- eliminate expensive, time-consuming paperwork for most Cubans, who will need only a passport to travel. And in a surprising development, the government will also allow some medical professionals to go abroad, though it will continue to limit travel by people who work for strategic sectors, and, most likely, dissidents.
It will also be easier to return to the island: Cubans who leave will no longer automatically lose their property, and those who wish to return for good can reapply for residency. The government has extended the period Cubans may spend overseas without losing their right to return to two years from 11 months, giving them more time to find jobs overseas and creating a window for those in the United States to apply for residency there -- a process they can begin after a year.
"Overall, this speaks to a desire to move towards a more normal immigration policy and a more normal country where people go back and forth, work, send money," said Philip Peters, vice president of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, which follows the U.S. relationship with Cuba.
But Mr. Peters said the new Cuban rules raised new questions about U.S. immigration rules that were devised to give Cubans refuge from persecution and offered privileges that other immigrants could only dream of.
The United States offers a minimum of 20,000 visas each year to Cubans. In addition, 8,000 or so who present themselves at a border crossing or make it to American shores each year are also allowed to enter and can apply for residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. An increasingly popular route among the tens of thousands of Cubans granted Spanish citizenship in the past few years is to enter the United States on a Spanish passport, lie low for a year and then claim United States residency under the Adjustment Act.
Even some moderate Cuban-Americans say the policy seems unsustainable, and several Cubans on the island and in Miami said there were fears the United States would eventually tighten its policies.