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Has Foreign Policy of the United States Towards Cuba Affected Cuban Immigration?

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Has foreign policy of the United States towards Cuba affected Cuban immigration?


United States immigration policy has been constantly changed throughout history due to the inability to develop a system that is fair towards, beneficial to, and pleases all Americans.  In reference to Cuba, mass migration to the United States occurred at the end of the Cuban Revolution when Communist Fidel Castro overtook the island in January 1959 due to political instability and unrest under the rule of Fulgencio Batista, a U.S. supported leader (Batalova and Zong 2017; Baker 2009).  Since then, there has been a steady influx of Cuban immigrants into the United States.  The exodus of thousands of Cubans over the span of several decades was prompted primarily by the nature and scope of the changes Castro implemented within the country which led to internal pressures from the alienated population to emigrate (Pérez 1986).  This has led to the rapid growth of the Cuban population in the United States, with this ethnic group accounting for nearly 1.3 million of 44 million immigrants living within the United States in 2016 — keeping Cubans among the ten largest immigrant populations since 1970 (Batalova and Zong 2017).  The result of mass Cuban immigration was a series of policies, including the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy,  created by the United States government in an attempt to control the sizeable amount of Cubans trying to immigrate while still remaining sympathetic to their political state to ensure a good relationship with the country.  The immigration policies that have been implemented over the past few decades have shown that the United States has held a preferential position towards the Cuban population and allowed the permanent stay of and faster path to U.S. citizenship for many more Cubans compared to immigrants from other Latin American countries.

Waves of Cuban Immigration

The Cuban Revolution promoted the first of four waves of large-scale Cuban migration to the United States.  These four waves all had “distinct political attitudes, motivations for leaving Cuba, socioeconomic composition, and processes of incorporation into America” according to Silvia Pedraza, author of “Cuba’s Refugees: Manifold Migrations” in Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race, Ethnicity in America (Nackerud et al. 1999).

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As previously stated, the Cuban Revolution resulted in the first large wave of Cuban immigrants between the years of 1959 to 1962.  Nicknamed the “Golden Exiles” for their social status, close to 200,000 upper and upper middle class Cubans came into the United States as refugees because they were in the most danger once Fidel Castro “nationalized all businesses, allied with the U.S.S.R. and declared his nation to be a communist state” (Baker et al. 2009; Pew Research Center 2007).  There was an impression that the United States would attempt to overthrow the communist regime in Cuban, making the stay of the first wave temporary, however, this was never followed through (Nackerud et al. 1999).  This wave ended in 1964 because of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, inability to overthrow Castro’s communist government, and inadequate dealing with the situation from the U.S. military side.

The second wave of Cuban immigrants occurred between the years of 1965 to 1974 when this group began partaking in “freedom flights,” a joint U.S. and Cuban government-sponsored program (Pew Research Center 2007).  The Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement between the two countries, made it possible for asylum-seeking migrants to arrange one-way trips to the United States (Nackerud et al. 1999).  During this wave, over 250,000 Cuban citizens, mainly of the middle and upper-middle class, traveled to the United States via air transportation (Pew Research Center 2007).

In 1980, another method of travel through the Mariel Harbor was opened up by Castro for Cubans looking to migrate after the Mariel Crisis, a series of hijackings and stormings of Latin American Embassies by Cubans requesting asylum.  Due to this and Castro’s disapproval of the U.S. encouragement of rebellion, the Mariel boatlifts were permitted (Nackerud et al. 1999). Through these, approximately 125,000 Cubans of the middle and lower classes were able to travel to Florida.  These immigrants were typically referred to as the “Marielitos” and were not as welcomed to the United States due to citizens’ suspicions that they were criminals or mentally defective (Baker et al. 2009).  The chaos surrounding this wave caused a less enthusiastic view of Cuban immigrants and more than overwhelmed the United States government (Pew Research Center 2007; Nackerud et al. 1999).

When the communist regime collapsed in the Soviet Union (leading to worsening of conditions in Cuba) and there was a tightening of U.S. embargo in the early 1990s, the fourth wave of Cuban immigrants began (Baker et al. 2009).  Throughout this time period, groups of rafters who floated to Florida shores, also known as “balseros,” and beneficiaries of a visa lottery system arrived by the tens of thousands (Pew Research Center 2007).  This became the final wave following the Clinton administration’s change in immigration policy towards Cubans (Baker et al. 2009).

US Policies

Preceding the international tensions due to the Cold War, Cuban immigration was fairly unrestricted due to the U.S. interest in Cuban resources such as sugar, rum, and tobacco, and even later after the Spanish-American War, there was free movement between the countries due to the Open Door Policy (Baker et al. 2009).  However, during each of the waves, the United States implemented many different policies that affected how many Cuban immigrants were permitted to stay in the country.  The various revisions in U.S. immigration policy for Cubans were due to the constantly changing political scene during the Cold War era.

With the start of the first wave, the United States’ policy was to allow Cubans to bypass the traditional method of entering the country.  The U.S. provided special humanitarian provisions for the majority of Cuban citizens that arrived because of the communist oppression in their homelands (Batalova and Zong 2017).  President Eisenhower upheld the Open Door Policy and welcomed a large number of Cuban immigrants seeking refugee status who had been exiled by the communist regime.  Immigrant groups from other countries were still required to follow the strict guidelines to stay in the country (Krogstad 2017).

The onset of the second wave brought many policies towards Cuban immigrants, simply due to the sheer size of the incoming population.  The Johnson administration allowed the facilitation of “freedom flights” (discussed in Waves of Cuban Immigration) in an intentional attempt to fix the relationship between the United States and Cuba (Nackerud et al. 1999).  Nackerud et al. assert that more specific reasoning was to “[maintain] the open door as an element of foreign policy to resist the Cuban government and to continue the perceived brain drain of intellectuals and powerful dissidents that began during the first wave” (1999).  During this time period, the United States also passed several acts that further helped increase the admittance, ability to remain in the country, and gain of citizenship for Cuban immigrants, such as the Hart-Cellar Act and the Cuban Adjustment Act.  In 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Cellar Act which removed the National Origins Quota System, made family reunification a priority, and stimulated a large influx of immigrants (Kammer 2015).  This made it much easier for all outsiders, not only Cubans, to legally enter the United States.  Furthermore, the United States government did, in fact, give preference to political refugees from communist nations (Baker et al. 2009).  The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 permitted Cubans that validated that they lived in the United States for at least one year to become “lawful permanent residents,” a term synonymous with green-card holders, and provided federal support for once the Cuban immigrants were settled (Batalova and Zong 2017; Baker et al. 2009).

The policies of the third wave were mainly implemented by President Carter and his administration.  President Carter took a different approach than Presidents Nixon and Ford who were less receptive to Cuban immigrants due to the economic and political alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union, choosing to reduce tensions (Nackerud et al. 1999).  At the time, President Carter deported a few of the Cubans from this wave because of the poor reception of yet another group arriving in sheer numbers, however, many of the “Marielitos” were still permitted to stay in the United States due to the sizable group, but most were denied automatic refugee status (Baker et al. 2009; Nackerud et al. 1999).  In addition, the 1980 Refugee Act was passed and resulted in the U.S. being partial towards Cubans, who were the main beneficiaries of this law (Tienda and Sanchez 2013).

During the fourth wave of Cuban immigration, Guantanamo Bay was used as a central location for detaining Cuban migrants in order for them to acquire proper documentation (Baker et al. 2009).  President Clinton responded to the numerous Cuban rafters by ending the precedent set by the Hart-Cellar Act and supporting new laws (Baker et al. 2009; Nackerud et al. 1999). Clinton became the first U.S. President during this time to modify the method in which the United States was dealing with the Cuban immigration problem.  During this time period, the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act was initiated in an attempt to stop Castro’s communist regime and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act was signed in an attempt to allow the United States to continue an embargo and “uphold antagonistic foreign policies towards Cuba” (Nackerud et al. 1999).  However, the Cuban Migration Agreement, also known as the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, required Cubans caught at sea to return to their home while allowing Cubans who successfully made it to U.S. soil to stay (Tienda and Sanchez 2013).

Geography & Naturalization

It is important to note that the implementation of each of these policies resulted in the naturalization of thousands of Cubans and led to changes in geographic areas where Cubans congregated.  Overall, it has been proven that there is a higher percentage of Cuban immigrants that have become U.S. citizens in comparison to immigrants in general, with 58% Cuban naturalized immigrants and 49% naturalized immigrants in general in 2016.  The majority of these Cubans that became naturalized by using the refugee category to become lawful permanent residents (88% in 2015 compared to only 14% of all lawful permanent residents), meaning that the humanitarian channel was taken advantage of (Batalova and Zong 2017).  This has overall resulted in over 700,000 Cuban-born people currently living in the United States (Pew Research Center 2007).  This population is extremely concentrated in many areas, especially Florida (counties such as Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach) where they have become readily accepted into more political and religious communities, where 78% of them resided between the years of 2011 to 2015 (Batalova and Zong 2017; Baker et al. 2009).


U.S. Preferential Position

Over the decades, United States immigration policy towards Cuba has demonstrated how unique the relationship between the two countries is.  Despite the Cold-War era tensions, the United States has provided many examples of times when Cubans have been favored over people from other countries — some even view them as the most privileged immigrants in America.  Many researchers have argued that the United States immigration policies have greatly benefitted Cubans more than other immigrant groups.  Pew Research Center asserts that “Throughout all four phases, U.S. policy has been far more welcoming towards Cubans than to any other migrants from Latin America. Virtually all Cuban migrants have been admitted under a special parole power exercised by the U.S. Attorney General that immediately grants them full legal status and puts them on a path to U.S. citizenship” and an article in International Migration Review by Larry Nackerud states, “Cubans in the first wave were in position to gain power and prosperity through the exceptional opportunities afforded them by the U.S. federal government” (Pew Research Center 2007; Nackerud et al. 1999). The laws discussed in US Policies demonstrate a greater acceptance and presence of the special treatment of Cubans.

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Beginning with President Eisenhower, there was an automatic acceptance of Cuban immigrants during the first wave because of the Open Door Policy and his opposition to the Cuban government (Nackerud et al. 1999).  This set the stage for the following decades when Cuban immigrants arrived in great numbers, hoping to stay on U.S. soil and ultimately gain U.S. citizenship.

Under the Johnson administration, the implementation of the “freedom flights” demonstrated exceptional aid towards the Cubans as it was one of the largest airborne refugee operations in U.S. history (Pew Research Center 2007).  During this administration, the Cuban Adjustment Act was also passed, showing a bias for Cubans in relation to gaining permanent residency.  This law permitted Cubans to apply for permanent residence in the United States after a single year, did not require a claim for asylum, and result in few instances of Cubans being repatriated compared to those from other Latin American countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic (Tienda and Sanchez 2013).

In addition to the Cuban-specific immigration policies, there were also some general immigration policies that Cubans gained from.  The Hart-Cellar Act abolished the previous quota system and put into place a system that prioritized family reunification, leading to a legacy of chain migration, of which Cuban immigrants took advantage of (Baker et al. 2009; Kammer 2015).  The Refugee Act made Marielitos who “did not formally qualify as refugees according to the guidelines of the newly enacted Refugee Act and were technically ineligible for federal funds” to be “accorded refugee status by congressional decree” which demonstrated partial treatment of Cubans (Kammer 2015).  These laws were not meant to help Cubans specifically, but greatly aided the movement and admittance of even more Cubans into the United States.

President Carter’s administration attempted to “improve relations with Cuba by lifting the ban on travel, opening a diplomatic office in Havana and Washington, and participating in a 1978 dialogue intended to diminish U.S.-Cuba hostility” (Nackerud et al. 1999).  This administration tended to be more receptive to Cubans compared to the Ford and Nixon administrations and ultimately allowed the Mariel boatlifts that brought thousands of Cuban immigrants to the United States to take place over the course of about six months (Kammer 2015).

The Cuban Migration Agreement was the last major policy that was preferential towards Cubans.  This policy allowed solely Cubans, not other Latin Americans, to remain in the United States if they made it without getting caught at sea.  These Cubans that arrived automatically qualified for the other provisions to expedite legal permanent residence that were already in place (Tienda and Sanchez 2013).

Implementation of More Fair Procedures

Post-fourth wave, various presidents have altered U.S. immigration policy towards Cuban immigrants because of the debate whether it favored Cubans and “diminished significance of Cuba as a political and security threat and rising U.S.-based social and political opposition to the 35-year contradiction in U.S. refugee admissions.”  The Clinton administration ended the Open Door Policy towards Cuba and reformed the system to be more organized, while staying mutually beneficial (Nackerud et al. 1999).

The Obama administration also implemented changes to ensure a more fair procedure for immigration.  President Obama attempted to amend the relationship between the United States and Cuba and normalize the immigration policies towards Cubans by working with Cuban President Raul Castro.  President Obama put an end to the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, determining that unless there was an obvious fear of persecution stated, “any Cubans who have attempted to enter the United States without a visa have been deemed inadmissible and subject to deportation like other foreign nationals…[and] those who enter on a visa remain eligible for a green card after one year in the country” (Krogstad 2017; Batalova and Zong 2017).


Discussion of the waves of Cuban immigration, the policies relating to each, and the results of the four waves is extremely important in the debate on whether the United States has favored Cuban immigrants over immigrants from other countries. Through the analysis provided, it can be determined that Cuban immigration has been expedited by U.S. policies throughout history.

The policies discussed in this paper demonstrate how the admission of Cubans into the United States without much restriction has led to a debate on whether this was fair or not.  The United States seemed to have the drive to help Cubans based on a national interest that led to “ethical, economic and political incongruencies” (Nackerud et al. 1999).  The majority of the policies that were influential to the influx of Cuban immigrants since the mid-1900s discussed in this paper were strongly in favor of Cubans, and in cases showed partiality towards Cubans over other Latin American immigrant groups.  It was established that Cubans had the upper hand in not being repatriated after coming into the country without a visa, gaining legal permanent residency over a short period of time, and sponsoring relatives from their home countries — indicating an unfair advantage for Cuban immigrants over other immigrant groups.

Though it is important to note that the past few Presidential administrations have tried to fix the obvious preferential position towards Cubans in the late 1900s, the sheer amount of Cubans currently living in the United States is evidence of the historical significance of Cuban-directed immigration policy in the United States.  Those Cubans who have been in the United States for years and become permanent residents will still remain and continue to be one of the largest groups of immigrants in America.


  • Baker, Laura, Erick Eiben, Leah Cloutier, Masten Woodward, and Matthew Lynde. 2009. “Cuban and Haitian Immigration.” Retrieved October 11, 2019 (https://www.fitchburgstate.edu/uploads/files/TeachingAmericanHistory/CubansHaitiansPartA.pdf).
  • Batalova, Jeanne and Jie Zong. 2017. “Cuban Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved October 11, 2019 (https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/cuban-immigrants-united-states).
  • Pérez, Lisandro. 1986. “Cubans in the United States.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 487:126-137. Retrieved October 11, 2019 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1046058).
  • Kammer, Jerry. (2015). “The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965.” Center for Immigration Studies. Retrieved October 11, 2019 (https://cis.org/Report/HartCeller-Immigration-Act-1965).
  • Krogstad, Jens M. 2017. “Surge in Cuban immigration to U.S. continued through 2016.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved October 11, 2019 (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/13/cuban-immigration-to-u-s-surges-as-relations-warm/).
  • Pew Research Center. 2007. “Cubans in the United States.” Retrieved October 11, 2019 (https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2006/08/25/cubans-in-the-united-states/).
  • Nackerud, L., Alyson Springer, Christopher Larrison, and Alicia Issac. 1999. “The End of the Cuban Contradiction in U.S. Refugee Policy.” International Migration Review 33(1):176–192. Retrieved October 19, 2019 (https://doi.org/10.1177/019791839903300108).
  • Tienda, Marta and Susana M. Sánchez. 2013. “Latin American Immigration to the United States.” Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences 142(3):48-64. Retrieved October 11, 2019 (doi:10.1162/DAED_a_00218)

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