“Crisis” in Context: What the Mariel Boatlift Can Teach Us About the Current Trends in Immigration

Recent immigration to the United States is one of the most hotly contested issues in the country, and while immigration is not new by any means, the recent increase in the number of migrants over the nation’s southern border has stirred tremendous controversy.

The spike in border crossings has sparked a sense of panic from lawmakers at every level who fear cities and states may not be able to manage thousands of potential new Americans arriving every single day. Using flawed and sometimes dangerous language, politicians from across the political spectrum — from Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas to the Democratic mayor of New York, Eric Adams — have mischaracterized the current influx of new immigrants as an unmanageable crisis, rather than focusing on how to equip the newest Americans and the communities where they live for the greatest possible success.

As we look at today’s challenges and opportunities, we can learn a lot by looking back at previous waves of immigration to place the current “crisis” in its appropriate historical context. This is not the first time the United States has seen a quick increase in the number of new immigrant arrivals. How has this gone in the past?

One dramatic example that mirrors the current moment in immigration is the Mariel Boatlift, a pivotal moment in the history of the Cuban Diaspora in the United States and a key example in studies about the economic impact of immigrants. As the child of Cuban immigrants, I have seen first-hand how Cubans’ special treatment — especially for those who arrived from Mariel — led to immense economic growth for my hometown of Miami, Florida. Over the course of my lifetime, I have seen Miami transform from a small metropolitan area to a center for trade and commerce across Latin America as well as a hub for lovers of food, culture, music, and — most importantly — the immigrant experience.

The Mariel Boatlift and the Cuban Diaspora in Miami

In the spring of 1980, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro devised a scheme both to rid his island nation of so-called dissidents who had been rioting in the streets for the right to emigrate, and to make political trouble for his primary geopolitical rival, the United States government. He did so by reversing his own decades-long policy that made it extremely difficult to gain legal permission to leave Cuba in search of political asylum in the U.S. On April 20, 1980, Castro opened the Port of Mariel, a municipal seaport an hour outside of Havana, and told anyone who wanted to leave Cuba that they could do so for a limited time.

Castro’s decision precipitated one of the largest single migration events in the history of the Cuban Diaspora known as the Mariel Boatlift. Through the seven-month period during which the port remained open, 150,000 Cuban and Haitian immigrants arrived in the U.S., mostly settling in the Miami area.

The Mariel Boatlift occupies a unique space in the minds of Cuban Americans to this day. Growing up Cuban in Miami, asking someone what year they came to the U.S. was often a polite way of asking whether they had been Marielitos, a term of endearment for some, and derision for others. There were many notable aspects to the Mariel Boatlift, both as a pivotal moment for U.S. immigration policy and for the Cuban diasporic community in Miami.

Cuban immigration to Miami was hardly new. When Castro and his communist rebels overthrew the fascist dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, thousands of Cubans fled to the United States, many settling in Miami.  Miami-Dade County was growing, too, at the time, nearly doubling in size between 1950 and 1960, before the first waves of Cuban immigrants even arrived. The arrival of Cuban immigrants spurred a decades-long growth in Dade County’s immigrant population. In the 40 years following Castro’s rise to power, the immigrant share of Dade county rose from 12 percent in 1960 to 49 percent by 2000. In 1980, just before the Mariel Boatlift began, Miami-Dade’s population stood at 1.6 million, 36 percent of whom were immigrants, more than half of whom were from Cuba.

The period of the boatlift increased the existing trend very substantially. The 125,000 Cubans and 25,000 Haitians who arrived in Miami over seven months represented a 9 percent increase in the overall population of Dade County, a dramatic change in a short period of time. In retrospect, however, it’s clear that similar numbers of Cubans would likely have arrived at some point later that decade with or without Castro’s decision to open the port: the overall population of Cubans grew fairly steadily decade by decade. The initial shock of a large number of arrivals all at once was a challenge to manage. But the fact of managing this flow made the challenges associated with helping resettle immigrants largely disappear over time as new communities eventually developed the capacity to support new arrivals on their own.

Many of the newly arriving Cubans in 1980 were temporarily housed in massive tent cities along the Miami River, waiting while the federal government devised a strategy to manage the influx of migrants. Within a few months, the Carter Administration announced the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP) which granted special status to those who arrived from Mariel as well as several thousand who came from Haiti at the same time. This status helped expedite working papers for the Marielitos and set up the special treatment Cubans would receive as immigrants through the 2010s.

The sudden increase in the number of new immigrants also became a touchstone in the literature about the economic impact of immigrants on U.S.-born workers and American cities. In a landmark study, economist David Card used the Mariel Boatlift as a “natural experiment” to gauge the impact of immigration on the local labor force and economy. There is no doubt among economists that an increase in the labor force leads to overall growth in the economy, as measured by an increase in gross domestic product. But, before Card’s study, most economists would have predicted that a substantial sudden increase in the number of immigrant workers would lead to a decrease in wages, and maybe an increase in unemployment, for U.S.-born workers.

In fact, Card found growth in the local economy, as predicted. However, he found virtually no change in either the overall wages of U.S.-born Miamians or the city’s unemployment rate. In fact, the Mariel Boatlift did not have negative consequences even for groups that might be considered most likely to be in competition with the new immigrants: previous immigrants from Cuba, for example, or workers with comparatively lower levels of formal education. Card’s study of the Mariel Boatlift led to a substantial body of work on this question. Though there are a few holdouts among economists, there is now widespread agreement that immigration — even rapid immigration — is good for the overall economy without hurting U.S.-born workers. One reason is that immigrants are not just workers, they are also entrepreneurs and consumers, expanding overall opportunities. Another is that workers who enter the economy in low-wage jobs tend to push established workers “up” to managerial or supervisory positions.

Like immigrants arriving today, Marielitos faced plenty of barriers to economic success as well as social and political backlash. Like today, many local officials were unsure of how to manage the influx of new immigrants to their shores. As a result, thousands of Cubans wound up living in a massive tent city beneath three major expressways. Thousands more were held at military bases like Indiantown Creek Base or in the parking lot of the Orange Bowl in what is today Little Havana. Despite these challenges, sensible policies made it possible for the Marielitos and the city of Miami to overcome those difficulties in remarkable fashion.

The Cuban Diaspora in South Florida paints a compelling picture of what can happen when immigrants are enabled to succeed through welcoming and effective policy. From 1966 to 2017, the Cuban Adjustment Act allowed Cuban immigrants who made the 90-mile journey across the Florida Straits to the United States to stay in the country and work legally once they arrived on dry land in the U.S. This policy — often referred to as “wet foot, dry foot” — made it possible for hundreds of thousands of Cuban immigrants to become United States residents with virtually no barriers to work authorization and a clear pathway to citizenship.

Cuban immigration helped spur the tremendous economic growth of the Miami metropolitan area, which boomed through the latter half of the 20th Century. This growth has persisted well into the 21st Century. What was once a sleepy destination for aging northerners looking for an escape from wintry conditions, Miami has become the center of U.S. trade with Latin America. Today, immigrants account for 44 percent of the total economic output in Miami’s metropolitan region, indicating that without the Cuban diaspora, South Florida would not be the economic force it is in the United States.

Mariel and the Cuban Diaspora in Contemporary Context

How does Miami in 1980 compare to cities seeing an increase in asylum seekers and newly arriving immigrants today?

In the 1980s, many tried to cast Marielitos as career criminals, and this narrative even served as the inspiration for Al Pacino’s titular character in Scarface. In reality, most Marielitos were just seeking a better life in the United States. Despite pervasive narratives that tried to paint the Mariel Boatlift as a major crisis, history showed the Marielitos managed to settle into the local economy rather seamlessly and helped build what is today a thriving metropolitan region.

As of early 2024, New York City officials have officially processed 180,000 immigrants since 2022. Not all have stayed in the city, but if they did it would represent a 2.4 percent increase in the city’s population. Even recognizing that immigrants are not all newly arriving immigrants are officially processed, the impact of today’s immigration on New York City is clearly smaller than the experience of Miami in 1980.

Denver is, today, a city with an experience closer to that of Miami in 1980, Denver has 2.9 million residents in its metropolitan region and 710,000 in the city proper. Denver city officials have cited 30,000 immigrant arrivals in 2023, a 7 percent increase to the city’s population and 1 percent increase to the metropolitan region.

I grew up Cuban in Miami in the decades following Mariel. Some of my relatives were Marielitos and I have lived through at least two more waves of immigrants from Cuba arriving in Miami. No one ever questioned policies like “wet foot, dry foot” in my family. We simply knew it was our saving grace that helped us build a better life for ourselves in the U.S. What was different about Cubans in 1980 from immigrants arriving today?

One part of the story is that, in the American political landscape, Cubans were deemed “worthy victims,” a phrase coined by Noam Chomsky to describe how American media depict the poor living under communism compared to the poor from capitalist countries. As victims of communism, Cubans were perfectly situated for special treatment — we were depicted (mostly) as the very picture of huddled masses longing to breathe free air. That victimhood is precisely what drives even contemporary narratives of Cuban immigrants as hardworking, and worthy of their special treatment.

Another part of the story is that in 1980, while immigration was controversial, we had a president who proposed positive changes in immigration policy and congress that was able to deliberate and act.

Today, there is far too little empathy for the plight of newly arriving immigrants. People are coming from Venezuela, Mauritania, Haiti, China, Colombia, and thousands are still coming from Cuba. They are just as worthy as the Cubans who came in the Mariel Boatlift. They are just as capable of improving their own lives and in the process helping expand the U.S. economy.

Even more important, Congress is paralyzed on the issue of immigration. Republicans are hyper-fixated on policing and militarizing the border and using racist narratives to cast immigrants as invaders. Democrats, meanwhile, are stuck playing defense on the immigration issue, perpetually conceding funds to the border with emphasis on funding resettlement services or comprehensive immigration reform. And, even when Democrats make extreme concessions, Republicans still balk at creating a policy, seeming to prefer the sense of chaos that allows them to double down on their fear mongering.

Part of the reason so many immigrants have reported to the border in search of asylum is because there are so few options for immigrants to enter the United States. The welcoming policies that helped my family and my hometown grow do not apply to other immigrants.

A coherent federal approach would be the best answer to today’s challenges, But, even if congress can’t be persuaded to take on the major changes, the challenge can be met. Cities and states can recognize that while the cost and disruptions are real, they are largely temporary. The federal government can help with funding, but cities and states can also do their part. In the long run, new immigrants will expand the economy and society and become another thread in the fabric of this country. Just like the immigrants from the Mariel Boatlift, the immigrants arriving in Denver, Chicago, and New York will settle into their new lives in the U.S. They will find work, homes, and begin contributing to the local communities and economies just like all immigrants do.

By Anthony Capote

Anthony Capote, PhD

Anthony Capote is a senior data and policy analyst at Immigration Research Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that looks at immigration issues.