Cuban-Americans stream to the island for holidays

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ | December 23, 2011 | 3:20 AM EST

Travelers wait in line with their luggage at Miami International Airport before traveling Cuba, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011, in Miami. As the holidays approach this year, thousands of Cuban-Americans are taking advantage of the Obama administration's relaxed travel regulations to return to the island. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

MIAMI (AP) — Thousands of Cuban-Americans are flying to the island this week to celebrate the new year. These types of annual pilgrimages would have been sharply curtailed if two South Florida, GOP Cuban-American congressmen had succeeded in returning to the Bush-era limit of once every three years. The measure was tucked into the congressional spending bill. But Republican leaders jettisoned it last week in a last-minute compromise.

President Barack Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans in 2009. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but the Cuban government said earlier this year it expected about 500,000 U.S. visitors. The majority of them are Cuban-Americans. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for statistics from past years. They previously said there were nearly 300,000 visits from Cubans outside the island in 2009.