MIAMI -- With the United States and Cuba inching closer to fully restoring diplomatic ties, including reopening embassies for the first time in 54 years, the future is murky for tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants who have been ordered by immigration authorities to leave the country.
As many as 25,000 Cubans living in the United States have outstanding deportation orders, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They include people who pose a threat to national security or have serious criminal convictions and are considered priorities for immigration enforcement agents.
Others committed relatively low-level crimes decades ago and have served their time in U.S. prisons.
Despite being an enforcement priority, those immigrants haven't yet been sent back to Cuba because the government of President Raúl Castro has not given them permission to return. It's unclear whether that will change.
Sisi, a 50-year-old grandmother who moved to Miami with her family when she was 4, is one of those waiting and wondering what the future holds.
As a teenager in the 1980s, Sisi, who asked to be identified only by her nickname because of her pending deportation order, married a man involved in South Florida's booming cocaine trade.
By the middle of the decade she'd become involved in the business herself and eventually served 21/2 years in prison, cutting ties to her brief life of crime in 1989.
Though she served her debt to society for the drug conviction, what she didn't know at the time was that her criminal record would prompt immigration authorities to issue a deportation order in 2000.
"I was young, stupid. It's hurting me," Sisi said. "It's coming back now, a lot."
For decades, deportation to Cuba has been complicated by the lack of diplomatic ties and the Cuban government's refusal to provide travel documents for most immigrants the U.S. sought to deport.
The mass migration from Cuba to Florida started in 1980 when then-President Fidel Castro announced he would allow anyone who wanted to leave the Communist island nation.
Sisi's lawyer, Grisel Ybarra, said the Cuban community is on edge amid the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Havana and the uncertainty about what renewed relations will mean for immigrants.
"Everybody in Miami right now is shaking like a leaf," Ybarra said. "People are really worried. The Americans and the Cubans are not in bed together, but they already have the room. It's happening."
Ybarra said she represents several clients who could face deportation, including Elias, a 71-year-old retiree whose deportation was ordered in 1991. He also agreed to speak about his immigration case only if his full name were not published.
Elias, who moved to Florida in 1961, said he has two drug-related convictions dating to the 1970s and 1980s. If he is forced to go back to Cuba, he said, he would be alone in a country he would barely recognize.
"I'm going to meet a new country," Elias said. "I've got nobody in Cuba. All my family is here. Anything that I love in this world is here."