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Prepared by:
Silvia M. Unzueta
Special Projects Administrator for Refugee Affairs
April 1981
Metropolitan Dade County Government
Office of the County Manager
Dade County Courthouse, Suite 911
Miami, FL 33130


This paper is an attempt to start unraveling the interrelation between the Cuban "entrant", here called Marielitos, or Marieleros or persons from Mariel, and the community life of Dade County, Florida, where most of the Marielitos reside.  Before their arrival, the population of Dade County was 35% Hispanic, 16% Black American, and 49% White (Reference: Metro Dade County Planning Department, 1979).  The Black Americans are about equally divided between those from the Islands and those from the deep South.  After their arrival, the Hispanic population increased by a half of a percent.  More than most other metropolitan areas, Dade County was a city of descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

The exodus of over 125,000 Cuban men, women and children started when more than 10,800 Cubans moved into the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, on April 4, 1980, after the Cuban Government guards were removed from the Peruvian Embassy.  The word quickly spread throughout the island.  The removal of the guards was Castro's response to a dispute between the Cuban and the Peruvian Governments, when the previous week a small group broke into the Embassy seeking asylum.

At that time, no one predicted that the removal of the Cuban militia guard from the Embassy was to be interpreted as anything but "teaching a lesson", to Peruvian authorities.  Instead, in less than twenty-four hours, over 10,800 Cubans jammed into the Embassy grounds seeking political asylum.  Dramatic photographs of crowded men, women and children in trees, and on the Embassy roof without water, food and basic necessities hit the world press, creating embarrassment, and pressure for their release.  After extensive third country negotiations and humanitarian requests from all over the world, the Cuban Government agreed to allow the departure of Cubans holding the Embassy.  Peru, Spain and Costa Rica, along with the United States, agreed to give refuge to the 10,800 Cubans seeking political asylum.  During these negotiations, spontaneous demonstrations of support by Cuban-Americans throughout the United States, other countries and the world press, helped to highlight the incident and eventually helped to achieve the release of approximately 1,500 of the 10,800 originally in the Embassy.  Upon the arrival of the initial group in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Madrid, the Cubans shared with the world media, the horrors lived while at the Embassy.  This exposure generated a negative opinion for the aging Cuban Revolution. A few days later, in a skillful and talented show of strategy, Fidel Castro announced the opening of the Port of Mariel and invited Cuban Americans to come to Mariel, Cuba, and pick-up their relatives who wanted to leave the island.  The announcement was well- received by the Cuban-American community which immediately began what appeared to be an endless flotilla through the Florida Straits.

After a few weeks, it was evident that the Cuban Government had no intention of fulfilling their promise.  Instead, some individuals released from jails and mental institutions became part of the human flow that constituted the Mariel exodus.  The "human avalanche" reached unprecedented numbers.  During the month of May, 88,817 Cubans arrived.  This figure constitutes the largest number of Cubans that arrived in any single previous year

During May, a number of other factors converged to create a very special situation. President Carter stated that:  "We will continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination."  That statement was qualified less than a week later.  Decisions surrounding the handling of the Mariel exodus became entangled in the national political scene.

In Dade County, the initial processing and housing of refugees was skillfully handled by a handful of local, state and federal officials under the coordination of Metropolitan Dade County Government.  At Tamiami Park, a twenty-four hour processing center was set up where more than 1,500 Cubans were scrutinized by Immigration and naturalization Service, fingerprinted, x- rayed, and released to family, friends and supportive others.  Food, clothing, and shelter were generously donated by individuals, local business, and civic groups.  The processing and housing operation involved more than 1,500 volunteers daily, who worked day and night in a unique and heart warming show of care and goodwill.  The Tamiami Park opened its' doors on Monday, April 21st and operated until the evening of Friday, May 9th, when the process was moved to an old hanger near Opa-locka Airport.

That same month, a state of emergency was declared by the President and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was put into action.  FEMA is the arm of the federal government responsible for coping with natural disasters and emergencies.  FEMA's efforts were plagued by a lack of staff with knowledge of the language and culture of the people arriving, changes in personnel, policy inconsistencies, lack of clear direction, and clashes among various federal agencies.  A Cuban-Haitian Task Force was appointed in a effort to guide federal efforts during the emergency.

Although many errors were committed and several criticism of the federal management has been voiced throughout this process, many individuals were served because of the work and dedication of workers and volunteers.

FEMA's presence, however, attempted to bring the needed federal dollars and the recognition of the exodus as a national emergency.  Meanwhile, the Cuban Government had turned what had been a negative internal situation for them into a serious emergency for some of us in the United States.  The masses of humanity continued arriving in Key West and other parts of Florida.  In Cuba, one of the results of Mariel was alleviating serious internal administrative and political problems, and exporting a high risk population to its political rival, the United States.  The exodus freed jobs, houses, and prison space for the Cuban establishment, and these were critically needed in the island.  The departure of dissidents and other marginal persons, relieved Cuba from explosive internal pressure.

At this time, still in May, another phenomenon took place: FEMA opened four refugee camps in Florida, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin:
1.  Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida, housing 10,025.  This was the first camp, a city of tents.
2.  Indian town Gap, in Pennsylvania with a population of 19,094 Cuban refugees.
3.  Ft. McCoy, in Wisconsin, housing 14,243.
4.  Ft. Chaffee in Ft. Smith, Arkansas with 19,060 refugees.

The continued human migration and the inability of authorities to cope with the large numbers at their immediate point of arrival, offered little alternative but to use these four military installations.

Life in camp began another chapter in the lives of these new immigrants.  Physical and psychological abuse, beatings and rapes were happening along with riots as the weeks went by and many Cubans remained tangled-up in the red tape of federal bureaucratic management.  At one point in the month of June, more than 62,000 Cubans were in the four camps.

The processing and resettlement of these individuals was delayed while diverse Voluntary Resettlement Agencies (VOLAGS), in contract with the Department of State, tried to seek and place the Cubans throughout the United States.  In expediting their placement, credentials and careful matching with potential sponsors was not always followed.  As a result, the rate of broken sponsorships was estimated to be as high as 30% to 40% of those resettled.  Most of those without relatives and who had broken away from their sponsors or "padrinos", gravitated to areas of high Hispanic populations.  California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida became primary targets where homeless Cubans sought refuge.

In the Miami, Dade County area, where the largest number is still being concentrated, their presence created another emergency for public officials.  Emergency temporary housing measures included opening up the Orange Bowl and making cots available to those with no place to stay.  The Orange Bowl was opened by the City of Miami in the second week of June.  On June 20th Metro Dade County obtained a special allocation from Washington to feed refugees breakfast and one hot meal a day.  Those staying at the Orange Bowl were certified for food stamp assistance by HRS - Food Stamp Division.  But as the stadium is the home of the Miami Dolphins, the City of Miami decided to establish another temporary facility erected by July 21st: a tent city under a downtown expressway.  Up to 800 Cubans were housed in Tent City at one time, and more than 4,000 lived there during the two months it was open.  Tent City remained open until September 30, 1980.  Simultaneously, with the operation of Tent City and the increasing number of broken sponsorship, the wave of weekly hijackings of commercial planes by Cubans, (up to three a day) made national headlines.

Reflecting on the Mariel Flotilla, it is clear that it's final chapter are still unfolding.  More than 3,000 still remain in Ft. Chaffee, now a modern-day concentration camp, were men and a few women await the opportunity to enjoy life in the United States.  Efforts to relocate the last refugees and close the camp have failed.  Major communities heavily impacted by the Mariel refugee population have demanded careful planning and screening on the part of the federal agencies handling their resettlement.

Demographic Characteristics of the Mariel Refugees

One of the most severe problems surrounding the Mariel population has been the lack of factual information as to the characteristics of the group.

In a brief six month period, 125,266 (Reference: Official figure released by INS) Cubans entered the United States.  Now, twelve months later, accurate demographic information about the group remains unavailable.  To date, one of the few officials data released, is the one obtained of the first 61,569 refugees who arrived and where processed in Miami.

Initial Group (Reference: John Lasseville) Processed in Miami, Fla.:
 Males -  55.2%
 Females - 44.8%
 Age group 15-45 - 54.7%
 Age group 23-35 - 29.2%
 "Immediate Family" in U.S. - 28.5%
 ---TOTAL - 61,569

Key elements in the composition of this population are age, race, educational level and family ties. Although no conclusive figures are available, individuals familiar with the Mariel population place the umber of non-Whites as high as 30% to 40%, and males making up approximately 60% to 70% of the population.  The average educational level is estimated to be between the 6th and the 9th grade, with few of the arrivals being able to communicate in any language but Spanish.

Perhaps the most serious problem this group faces is a lack of attachment to family and friends outside of Cuba.  This lack of a support system has often inhibited effective resettlement efforts.

Juan Clark, in "The 1980 Mariel Exodus: An Assessment and Prospect," estimate that "about 50,000 men came without their families."  He further estimates that about 20,000 men were forced by the Cuban government to be separated from their spouses in coming to the United States, in violation of their human rights.

Unaccompanied Minors

Dr. Jose Szapocznik, Director of CAMP, Cuban-American Adolescent Management Program, University of Miami, Department of Psychiatry, Spanish Family Guidance Center, which provided services to Cuban unaccompanied minors, reports their total in the camps at 672.  Of those more specific information was obtained on 549 cases; of these:

55 or 10% were females
43% were non-white
18% have been or were in a marital or paired relationship
12% reported coming directly from jail
50% reported having been in jail at some point of their lives
59% reported having some relative in U.S., but only about half of these could give any portion of an address.
Parental occupation and education was reported to be:
70% labor/agricultural
20% skilled labor
10% professional

Szapocznik reports that a large portion of the interviewees appeared to have poor adjustment to school.  Sixty-five percent stated that they had stopped going to school.  The rough literacy assessment turned up approximately 8% illiteracy rate.

Six of the 55 female minors stated that they thought or knew that they were pregnant at the time of the interview.  Fifty-six, or almost 10% of the respondents reported sexual abuse, venereal disease or multiple sexual problems in their recent or distant past.

Clinical judgements of a series of psychiatric symptoms and conditions reported the following characteristics:
47% had experienced behavioral problems in Cuba
14% had experienced hallucinations
 8% had experienced delusions
31% were or had been clinically depressed
22% had experienced suicidal tendencies
14% had made a suicide attempt

Although much political has been given to the criminal record of this population, reliable information is not available.  The Immigration and naturalization Services had 1,761 or 1.4% in custody, charged with committing felonies and other serious crimes in Cuba.  Most of these remain in jails throughout the United States, for crimes committed outside of the U.S.  A total of 23,927 were considered by INS as non-felon criminal and political prisoners, representing 19.1% of the total arrivals.  It is very unfortunate that the two categories were lumped together into one total figure.

Much has also been said about the percentage of homosexuals in those arriving from Mariel.  However, no data is available as to the actual number of homosexuals in the Mariel population.

The Mariel Boatlift ended in the same abrupt manner it had started, with Fidel Castro's instruction on September 26, 1980, that boats waiting to pick up relatives in Mariel Harbor return home empty.  On September 26, the exodus that had brought to our shores 125,266 Cuban men, women and children in 2,011 boats and one airplane was concluded.  In final negotiations between the United States an Cuban officials, during the end of September, the Cuban government advised the United States Interest Section in Havana of an additional 600 Cubans stranded by the abrupt closure of Mariel, and requested they be cleared for admission into the United States.  The U.S. accepted the Cuban government's request and agreed to bring these Cubans to Miami, after careful screening by U.S. authorities in Havana.  These individuals were granted full "refugee status," they are not classified as entrants.

Legal Implications

Throughout this paper reference is made to ‘refugees".  Legally, the individuals coming in the Mariel Flotilla have been granted the new administrative category of "entrant".  This technicality rendered them ineligible for assistance available through the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.  Many experts believe that the denial of refugee status to these people greatly contributed to the many problems encountered a all levels.  It was through the Fascell - Stone Amendment to the Refugee Act of 1980, that special funding was authorized, and in the form of cash assistance, reached the entrants during the latter part of February 1981.

The Mariel experience dramatized the need to look at the U.S. immigration laws and to re- evaluate the 1980 Refugee Act.  The Select Commission on Immigration felt a wave of public pressure as a direct result of Mariel.  The Commission's final report was issued in March 1981, in Washington, D.C. The Commission made important recommendations in the area of U.S. Immigration.

Dade County, Florida

Official estimates put the number of Mariel refugees in the Dade County area at over 90,000.  Despite resettlement activities aimed at relocating refugees out of this area, it is anticipated that many have not left Dade County and many, resettled out of the State of Florida, have turned to it.

By the end of 1980, it was estimated that a large number of Cuban entrants will be added to the total record in the U.S. Census, conducted April 1, 1980.

It becomes difficult to overstate the impact of this wave of refugees on the social, economical and institutional framework of the Dade County community.  The emergency nature and the short span of time involved in the arrival of many thousands of people has been particularly taxing to the existing governmental entities, and to the residents of this community.   Their arrival coincided with an increasing flow of Haitians seeking freedom from Haiti and the Bahamas.

Governmental Services

Social security, driver license and food stamp offices became overwhelmed by the great number of people requesting services.  Lines at the INS Office begin forming daily in the early hours of the orning.  Medical care demand at the County hospital and in community mental health centers and other social service programs, has increased substantially.


Although the official unemployment figures for Dade County are reported at 6.7% these exclude an estimated 50,800 unemployed Cuban/Haitian entrants who increase the actual unemployment rate for the area to 13.0%.  Many of the Cubans require upgrading of their skills before they are able to find jobs.

As of mid March 1981, the Little Havana Manpower Agency reports 3,046 individuals on a waiting list.  Of these 2,893 o 94.9% are Mariel refugees.  The same agency reports having placed, from April 21 to March 1981, 2,165 persons in various jobs.  Of these only 285 or 13.1% were Mariel refugees.  The above figures confirm the severe unemployment problems experienced by the newly arrived group.


Dade County's rental housing market has a vacancy rate of less than 0.5%.  Overcrowding indexes in Hispanic communities was high even prior to the Mariel influx.  It was to these areas that many of the new refugees came adding to the existing housing crunch.  Rent has skyrocketed, further curtailing the ability of the new arrivals to secure adequate and safe housing.


By the end of December, 1980, the Dade County public school system was hit with approximately 13,800 Cuban children in grades K-12 (ages 5 to 17).  The children, fluent only in Spanish, came into an already overcrowded system which continues to make every effort to respond to community needs, in spite of severe funding constraints.

Criminal Justice

The increase of criminal activity has been one of more item often blamed on the Mariel refugees.  As of December 26, 1980, Unzueta reports that of 163 Cubans charged an/or convicted felons housed in Dade County's main jail 103 or 63.9% are Mariel refugees, 11 or 6.8% are Cuban ex- political prisoners, and 47 or 29.1% are Cuban-Americans.  Mariel refugees represented 9.8% of individuals in the main jail.  In the Women's Detention Center, where females either charged or convicted of felonies or misdemeanors are housed Unzueta reports 8 or 4.6% Cuban-American women along with 8 or 4.6% Mariel Cuban females and 7 homosexual Mariel males.  Mariel refugee women represent 4.6% of the total females, while Mariel homosexual men represent 4.0% of the total individuals housed in the Women's Detention Center on December 26, 1980.  The increase in criminal activity has impacted heavily on the entire Dade County judicial system.

Mariel Deaths

While no specific data is available on the total number of Mariel deaths a study was conducted by Unzueta of dead Mariel refugees who were taken to Dade County's Medical Examiner Office.  It is estimated that the Medical Examiner's Office receives only 33.9% or one-third of all County deaths, and all homicides and suicides.  An analysis of the Medical Examiner's records for the period between April 21, 1980 to March 31, 1981, indicates 101 Mariel refugee cases came through this office.

Homicides represented fifty-seven or 56.4% of those cases, followed by natural deaths, which represented twenty-three or 22.7%, accidents with eleven or 10.8% and ten or 9.9% suicides.  Seventy-eight or 77.2% were white and twenty-three or 22.7% were black.  Eighty-eight or 87.1% were males, while thirteen or 12.8% were females.  The average age of the Mariel cases was 41.8 years.

Metro Dade County's Involvement

The County's involvement began early as the coordinating entity in charge of processing Cubans during the first nineteen days.

Throughout the past year, Metro Dade has worked hand in hand with the legislative delegation and the Governor to lobby for the passage of the Fascell-Stone legislation.

The County's social delivery system has been, and continues to be, heavily impacted with the Cubans who came through the Mariel-Key West Flotilla.

During 1980, Metro Dade County obtained a grant from the Department of Health and Social Services - Office of Refugee Resettlement, for the purpose of implementing a three phase program for Cuban and Haitian entrants.

The grant will address the following critical areas:

1.  Development and implementation of a community and entrant need assessment to determine specific needs faced by the Cuban and Haitian entrant population, along with an evaluation of existing social service needs, their present capabilities and need for future expansion.  A Resources Directory of services available to entrants will be compiled as a result of this survey.

2.  Development and Implementation of Training Program for social services and mental health  professionals at various levels of government and non-profit agencies to insure that existing and new services are known and utilized.  The training will familiarize approximately 200 participants with the characteristics of the entrant population and review resources available to serve them.

3.  Development of a proposal application for a Comprehensive Individualized Assessment Center where entrants exhibiting serious social and/or mental problems would be administered a biosocial/psychological evaluation and channeled for referral and resettlement to communities and programs where their individual needs could be met.

The grant is scheduled to run twelve (12) months for the period from January 1, 1981 through December 31, 1981.  Dr. Kay Flynn, Special Assistant to the Director of the Department of Human Resources is the Project Director.

The publishing and release, in May, of the results of the assessment of the needs of Dade County entrants will be a significant contribution to clarify the needs of this population.

A Cuban Haitian Entrant Advisory Committee has been convened by the County to address special issues and concerns related to the Entrants in Dade County.  The Committee, chaired by Assistant County Manager Sergio Pereira and staffed by Silvia Unzueta, Special Projects Administrator for Refugee Affairs, is made up of thirteen individuals who represent various levels of government, the school system, religious groups and the community at large.  The bringing together of this Committee is a step in the right direction as better communication and solution strategies are discussed and evaluated by various levels of officials and community leaders.

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