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Good Refugee, Bad Refugee

The treatment of Cuban and Haitian refugees provides an example of how subjective American immigration policy has become. On the eve of the Cuban Revolution, some “4,000 rich and well-to-do Cubans had come to Miami.”[1] Throughout 1960, the year following the Revolution, it was simple to come to the U.S., a ticket was $25 and the flight was less than one hour long. [2] In response to the influx of Cuban’s fleeing Castro’s Cuba, Eisenhower allocated $1 million to be used for emergency relief. Many of those arriving had had their resources confiscated by Castro’s regime and so arrived on U.S. shores penniless.[3]

Just before the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, “’Operation Pedro Pan’ enabled desperate Cuban parents to send some 14,000 of their children, alone of in small groups, to the United States.” There were a variety of reasons that parents were driven to such extreme measures. Some of these were rumors propagated by the CIA both in Cuba and the United States about how the children would be indoctrinated into the evils of communism.[4] This program ended when regular flights between the U.S. and Cuba ended.

However, Cubans were still freely welcomed into the United States and continued to come in the thousands. Castro allowed those with family members in the U.S. to leave Cuba and reunite in the U.S.[5] Later, “3,400 old, ill, and disabled people” were allowed to come.[6] All told, by the end of 1973, 297,318 refugees had come to the United States.

These Cuban refugees were given special status including receiving larger payouts in public assistance and accommodations in job placement and retraining programs.[7] The biggest favor received was the 1966 passage of the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act which allowed “Cubans admitted or paroled into the U.S. after January 1, 1959, and physically present in the U.S. for one year could be given permanent resident status at the discretion of the attorney general.”[8] This was not granted for any other nationality or ethnic group and contrasts sharply with the treatment received by the Haitians. This abruptly changed in 1994, when President Clinton “reversed more than thirty years of American policy by announcing that any Cuban boat people or rafters who were picked up at sea would no longer to taken to the United States, as formerly, but sent to the base at Guantanamo…”[9] However, President Clinton’s unfavorable policies towards the Cubans were reversed when George W. Bush began president. “Bush was asked to comment on the situation of 200 Haitian boat people, who on October 29, 2002” had successfully reached the American shore and garnered media attention.[10] President Bush’s response was, “the immigration laws ought to be the same for Haitians and everybody else – except for Cubans”.[11] This comment points to the favorable treatment that Bush would afford Cubans immigrants throughout his presidency.

Although Haitians, because of their proximity to the United States, had been coming to our shores for many years and in fact have contributed to the establishment of our democracy, they were viewed in a completely different light than were Cuban refugees. Because they were considered economic refugees, they were ineligible for asylum. They were fleeing the right-wing tyranny of the notorious Duvaliers – not communists.[12]

Racism was surely at the heart of this difference in treatment. Cuban refugees, at least at first, were white upper or middle class professionals. Haitians were almost 100% black. [13] The numbers granted refugee status from each country bear this racism out. In 2000, the number of refugees admitted from Cuba were 3,184, however, only 49 from Haiti were granted refugee status.[14] True, that this is not clearly indicative of the discrimination, it does point to an imbalance. Both countries are close to the United States, Cubans are viewed favorably and Haitians not.



Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

[1] Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004),193.

[2] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 193.

[3] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 193.

[4] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 196.

[5] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 198.

[6] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 199.

[7] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 200-01.

[8] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 201.

[9] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 209.

[10] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 210.

[11] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 210.

[12] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 213.

[13] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 213.

[14] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 211.

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