An Information Service of the
Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami

Issue 114
October 9, 2009




Hans de Salas-del Valle*

"Unilateral concessions to Havana will only further induce hundreds of thousands of impoverished Cubans to head for Miami with the security that they will be able to return to their homeland to see loved ones as often as they wish and send unlimited financial assistance to family members who remain behind until they, too, can be brought to the United States."


Cuban Migration to South Florida: Impact and Implications



The Politics of Contemporary Cuban Immigration: 1994-2008

     From August into September of 1994, Americans witnessed the last of the great seaborne migrations across the Florida Straits as tens of thousands of Cubans drifted toward Miami aboard just about any imaginable kind of makeshift vessel. (1) The balseros (rafters) of the ’94 crisis took to the sea in the midst of a complete collapse of the Cuban economy as the Soviet Union imploded and could no longer subsidize Cuba as a showcase for aspiring communist states in the Third World. At a time when one journalist was confidently proclaiming the “final hour” of Havana’s communist regime (2), President Bill Clinton agreed to Fidel Castro’s demands to open the U.S. to a steady flow of Cuban immigration by accepting 20,000 refugees annually in exchange for the Cuban government’s promise to prevent a future mass migration to the United States.

      Yet 15 years later approximately 50,000 new immigrants of Cuban origin are settling in the United States each year (3), a wave of migration that exceeds the quota of the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords by an astounding 150 percent. Perhaps more troubling than the record number of Cubans immigrating into Florida (upwards of 80 percent of all Cubans entering the U.S. continue to gravitate toward the South Florida metropolitan region; see Table II below) is the silence and complacency of Washington policymakers and Florida officials alike who have to divert billions of dollars in public funds to provide for the basic needs of the hundreds of thousands of impoverished Cuban migrants expected to abandon the dysfunctional society and bankrupt economy wrought by the Castro brothers’ half-century rule.

     Notably, the past twelve months have seen living conditions on the island rapidly deteriorate in the aftermath of billions in losses to agriculture, infrastructure, and housing by a series of devastating back-to-back hurricanes in 2008. Moreover, last year’s storms compounded the cumulative effects of two decades of post-Soviet decline and have rendered the regime particularly vulnerable to domestic instability as the Cuban government cannot feed nor safely shelter an ever-increasing proportion of the island’s population.

     With the ongoing global recession taking a further toll on Cuba’s already battered economy (4), hundreds of thousands of jobless Cuban migrants will flood into South Florida as the sun sets on the Castro brothers’ regime. The direct and indirect costs of Cuban immigration will weigh down the already depressed economy of South Florida and could transform the once Republican bastion of Cuban Miami into a new Democratic enclave. Grateful post-Soviet Cuban migrants (who can apply for U.S. citizenship within five years of their arrival) will increasingly break with the historic Cuban-American exile community’s conservative principles and allegiances. Cubans who have immigrated since the fall of the Soviet Union tend to vote pragmatically rather than ideologically and could reward Obama in 2012 for facilitating unlimited travel to the island and freedom to send unlimited sums of cash, better known as remittances, to relatives back home. A convergence of values between contemporary socialist-educated Cuban immigrants and the Democratic Party’s vision of a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state could also attract those migrants who favor aspects of the socialist society that they left behind but often prefer in terms of universal healthcare, free education through college, subsidized housing, and other social entitlements.

U.S. Policies Will Induce Further Mass Immigration from Cuba

     In June 2009 the Obama administration held its first senior-level talks with the Castro regime in the first substantive conversation between the U.S. and Cuban governments in recent years (5). The dialogue did not, however, address the Castro regime’s unapologetic repression of dissident voices nor did the State Department demand democratic elections or even an expansion of fundamental economic rights as a precondition for the lifting of the longstanding U.S. embargo. It was thus hardly surprising that the discussions this summer between the U.S. and Cuba revolved around the one concern that has truly troubled American administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, for the last two decades: the surging problem of Cuban mass migration to Florida. The fact is that in the past nine years alone the U.S. has welcomed more than 235,000 new Cuban immigrants, a rate of migration which rivals that of the historic mass exodus during the Cold War years of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Table I). Indeed, Cuba ranks first among countries of origin of new U.S. permanent residents relative to the size of its population. In a single year, 2008, one out of every 221 Cubans moved permanently to the United States compared to one in 579 Mexicans and only one in 16,159 Chinese (Table III).

     In light of the exponential growth of Cuban migration to the United States the Obama administration’s decision to remove or relax virtually all restrictions on travel, cash remittances, and spending during stays in Cuba by U.S. citizens and residents with family ties to the island will not reduce -- if indeed that is the true intent of the policy -- emigration to the United States any more than the Clinton White House’s accords with Havana in the 1990s achieved their objectives. On the contrary, such unilateral concessions to Havana will only further induce hundreds of thousands of impoverished Cubans to head for Miami with the security that they will be able to return to their homeland to see loved ones as often as they wish and send unlimited financial assistance to family members who remain behind until they, too, can be brought to the United States. The Obama administration’s liberal policy on return travel and remittances to relatives in Cuba by Cuban-Americans will aggravate an already acute immigration problem.

     Immigration has been at the forefront of post-Soviet relations between Havana and Washington since the signing of the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords in 1994 and 1995. While agreeing to curtail the dramatic departure of a mass of impoverished Cubans on makeshift rafts the Castro regime nonetheless ultimately won a major political victory in its confrontation with the Clinton administration by manipulating the American public’s fears about mass migrations and turning the domestic vulnerability of the White House on the issue of illegal immigration into leverage for Havana. Castro in turn has craftily provided sufficient political cover to U.S. administrations since the mid-1990s such that we have not witnessed another chaotic flotilla of tens of thousands of emaciated and dehydrated human beings helplessly adrift between Cuba and Florida.

Mass Migration: A “Coercive Instrument” of the Castro Regime’s Foreign Policy

     However, in the years since Clinton left the White House upwards of 235,000 more Cubans have emigrated to the U.S. (Table I), quietly entering the United States through Mexico and Canada or arriving by way of more distant third countries like Spain and Venezuela. Furthermore, the total volume of immigrants from Cuba since the year 2000 alone equates to nearly six times the demographic impact of the roughly 40,000 who, unwittingly and on their disarmingly dilapidated vessels, served as Castro’s ultimate “coercive instrument” (6) of foreign policy during the 1994 crisis. Fifteen years later the Obama administration may find itself facing a much greater immigration problem both in terms of the magnitude of the migrant flow from the island and with respect to the potentially devastating demographic effects on Florida and Miami-Dade County in particular.

     The influx of Cuban migrants has reached a volume that exceeds even the historic waves of mass migration during the peak years of the late 1960s into mid-1970s. During fiscal year (FY) 2008 alone, encompassing the period from October 2007 through September 2008, nearly 50,000 more Cubans settled permanently in the United States. The current rate of Cuban immigration flagrantly violates the quota established by the Clinton-Castro accords by an astounding 150 percent, with many more thousands of Cubans undoubtedly on their way. While the bilateral migration accords of the 1990s attempted to restrain mass migration and prevent a humanitarian crisis (both in Cuba and at sea) by offering the Castro regime a permanent outlet for economic and social discontentment, unlike the immigration quotas established for other countries there is in fact no legal limit to the number of Cubans who can be admitted each year into the United States. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 (7), all persons of Cuban birth or citizenship who seek refuge in the U.S. are not only allowed to legally reside and work in the United States upon declaring their presence and “paroled” into the country but also may apply for, and are all but guaranteed, permanent resident status within a year of their date of entry into the country (whether or not the person entered U.S. territory through “legal” means).

     Judging by the Castro regime’s 50 years of survival vis-à-vis now 11 U.S. administrations from Eisenhower to Obama, one has to give the Devil his due: Fidel and Raúl Castro have outwitted their Yankee opponents through a combination of shrewd poker diplomacy and reckless brinksmanship. Students of Machiavelli as well as of Marx and Lenin, the Castro brothers have never wasted an opportunity to exploit the miscalculations of the State Department nor to manipulate the goodwill of the American people. Well-intentioned U.S. policymakers have often projected their own enthusiasm for friendly relations with Cuba in mistakenly assuming that Fidel sincerely sought a neighborly relationship with Washington, or believing that Raul is any different. On the contrary, unilateral gestures and concessions to Havana are ultimately interpreted as signs of weakness and naïveté by the Castro brothers. And on the issue of migration the Obama administration has already blinked. The Castro regime holds the winning hand with its keen understanding of Washington’s fears of a visible mass migration of desperate and destitute Cubans across the Florida Straits in the context of an already highly polarized debate in the U.S. Congress over the looming question of amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. Expect Raul Castro to use his trump card of mass migration to obtain further major concessions from the Obama administration. Indeed, one could argue that Raul has already won the game.

Political Implications and Economic Impact of Cuban Immigration

     With Raul Castro setting the terms for a rapprochement with Washington while Obama is in the White House, the Cuban government will astutely exploit the opportunity to transfer the social and economic costs of the Castro regime’s dysfunctional policies to U.S. taxpayers via mass immigration of unwanted and discontented Cubans. A political bonus for Havana will be the influential role of post-Soviet Cuban immigrant voters in Florida who may turn out in even larger numbers for Obama and the Democrats in the 2010 and 2012 elections after a seismic shift to the left among Cuban-American voters in November 2008, when 47 percent of the Cuban electorate in Florida voted for Obama. (8) In so doing Castro’s own rebellious “children of the Revolution” may paradoxically constitute a highly influential constituency in U.S. presidential politics which, while furthering their own collective self-interest in traveling freely and remitting financial resources to relatives in Cuba, will also serve Havana’s purposes by bolstering prospects for the unilateral lifting of the U.S. embargo and normalization of relations before the end of Obama’s expected second term in office, which Cuba will do everything possible to support.

     The total economic cost of Cuban immigration, still heavily concentrated in Miami-Dade County and the surrounding South Florida region, is difficult to estimate as Cubans quickly – within a year or so of setting foot on U.S. territory – acquire permanent legal resident status and therefore blend into the larger population, competing for the same jobs and qualifying over time for the same benefits and federal/state entitlements as U.S. citizens. Nevertheless, at a minimum, initial public expenditures for each annual wave of Cubans entering the U.S. easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In a single year the approximately 50,000 Cubans who were granted U.S. legal permanent resident status in 2008 received upwards of US$322 million through a variety of transitional or temporary federal assistance programs for refugees as well as in basic local and state-funded services, including free public education for their children (Table VI). Many newly arrived Cubans, especially the elderly, children, and the unemployed who together account for about half of the contemporary Cuban immigrant population (Table IV), continue to benefit from such entitlement programs for up to seven years and then indefinitely once they have acquired American citizenship, as most Cubans tend to do within five to 10 years of residing in the United States. At the current rate of migration the direct minimum cost of subsidizing the needs of Cuban immigrants during their first twelve months or so in the U.S. would be about US$1.3 billion over the next four years (FY 2009-2012).

     Should Cuban immigration into the U.S. continue to increase the costs will not only grow accordingly but the demographic effects will overwhelm South Florida’s low-wage service-oriented labor market; strangulate an already congested transportation infrastructure; and impose an expansion of social services and subsidies ranging from K-12 education to food stamps at a time when there are a million unemployed Floridians, including 11 percent of Miami-Dade County’s workforce. High as the unemployment rate is in Florida, among new immigrants of Cuban origin unemployment reached 13.5 percent in 2008 while another 43 percent of newly-arrived Cubans in the U.S. were economically inactive (e.g., the elderly, homemakers, and children). As of 2008 more than 56 percent of Cuban immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. within the last year or so remained either unemployed, underemployed, inactive or otherwise marginally attached to the mainstream economy.

Difficult Questions

     How many more individuals will abandon the island during the rapidly fading twilight years of the Castro brothers? The present rate of migration suggests that some 250,000 more Cubans will have fled to the United States by the end of 2013, or roughly 50,000 new residents of Cuban origin annually. However, should the rate of Cuban immigration continue to grow by 100 percent or greater as it has in the years since the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords of 1994-1995, Americans may have to make room for a million or more newcomers in the coming decade. Assimilating such unprecedented numbers of newly arrived Cuban migrants within an already demographically saturated South Florida region could pose challenges that transcend the upwards of US$3.2 billion in estimated first-year federal, state, and local additional expenditures on aid and services for Cubans arriving between 2009 and 2018. Above and beyond the direct monetary costs associated with any mass migration of such a magnitude are the cultural, socioeconomic, and political transformations that follow the immediate demographic impact. Not only will South Florida’s physical infrastructure, natural resources, and already struggling economy be stretched and strained even further to accommodate a surge in population but, longer-term, the region will not likely return to its pre-mass migration condition.

      A fundamental question that must be considered in this respect, and yet which the Cuban-American community evades in its public discourse (although not always in its private conversations) for fear of divisiveness, is whether, socioeconomically, the post-Soviet Cubans who have been settling in South Florida since the early 1990s, and particularly younger Cubans who have only known the never-ending barbaric conditions of the Special Period, will prove to be as productive and civic-minded as the pioneering exiles of the ‘60s and ‘70s? The fact is that Cuba has not only endured the half-century of rule under the Castro regime but now also a full 20 long years of that rule under conditions of post-Soviet decline and destitution. The Special Period culture has in turn engendered a generation characterized by survivalist values and exhibiting a new ethic of alienation, apathy, and antisocial attitudes. It is this post-Soviet generation that increasingly will constitute the largest segment of Cuban immigrants in the United States over the coming decade and, if recent years are any indication, will radically transform the culture and politics of Cuban Miami and weigh heavily on the economy and demographics of South Florida.

Table I. Cuban Immigration into the United States, FY 1950-2008

New U.S. Legal Permanent
Residents of Cuban Origin
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2008, Table II (accessed July 2009); Randall Monger and Nancy Rytina, “Annual Flow Report: U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2008,” March 2009, (accessed July 2009).


Table II. New Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) of Cuban Origin: Residence by State and Metropolitan Area, FY 2008

New LPRs of Cuban Origin,
FY 2008
Metropolitan Area
New LPRs of Cuban Origin, FY 2008
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach (FL)
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater (FL)
New Jersey
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island (NY-NJ-PA)
Orlando-Kissimmee (FL)
New York
Las Vegas-Paradise (NV)
Naples-Marco Island (FL)
Louisville-Jefferson County (KY-IN)
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2008, Supplemental Table II, (accessed July 2009).


Table III. Top Countries of Origin: New U.S. Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs), FY 2008
Country of Origin
(Ranked by new legal immigrants, FY 2008)
Population (2009 est.)
New LPRs from
Country of Origin, FY 2008
Demographic Impact of Emigration
(Ranked by new U.S. LPRs relative to country of origin’s total population)
110 million
Cuba: 0.44 % (1 in 226 inhabitants)
1.330 billion
Mexico: 0.17 % (1 in 579 inhabitants)
1.148 billion
Philippines: 0.06 % (1 in 1,778 inhabitants)
96 million
China: 0.006 % (1 in 16,159 inhabitants)
11.2 million
India: 0.0055 % (1 in 18,121 inhabitants)
Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, R. Monger and N. Rytina, “Annual Flow Report: U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2008,” March 2009, (accessed July 2009)


Table IV. Occupations: New Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) of Cuban Origin, FY 2008

New LPRs of Cuban Origin, FY 2008
Occupations (category)
Percentage of Total
Management and professional services
5.9 %
Services (non-professional)
8.1 %
Sales and other office occupations
6.1 %
Construction, maintenance, and repair
5.5 %
Production and transportation
17.6 %
Agriculture, fishing, and forestry
0.5 %
No profession/No occupation outside home
(including homemakers, children, students, and retirees)
42.8 %
13.5 %
Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, “Cuba,” in “Profiles of Legal Permanent Residents: 2008,” (accessed July 2009). Note: Data reflect the responses of 30,986 new legal permanent residents of Cuban origin.


Table V. Immigrant Origins: State of Florida and Miami-Fort Lauderdale Metropolitan Area, FY 2008
Country of Origin
New U.S. Legal Permanent Residents, FY 2008
South Florida
(Miami-Fort Lauderdale Metropolitan Area):
New U.S. Legal Permanent Residents, FY 2008
Total (including all other countries)
Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, “Profiles on Legal Permanent Residents,” Fiscal Year 2008, (accessed August 2009).


Table VI. Public Costs of Cuban Immigration, FY 2008
U.S. Federal and State Public Assistance Available to New Cuban Entrants,
FY 2008
Average Expenditures
per person,
FY 2008 (est.)
Total Public Expenditures on First-Year Benefits to 49,500 Cuban Entrants,
FY 2008 (est.)
Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA)
US$180 per person (Florida, monthly)
US$106.9 million
Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) or state Medicaid insurance
US$165 per person (Florida, monthly)
US$98 million
Public Education (K-12)
US$8,514 per student (Florida, annually)
US$62.7 million
Food Stamps
US$100 per person ( Florida, monthly)
US $59.4 million
Total FY 2008
US$6,606 per person (annually)
US$327 million
Sources: Estimates based on data drawn or adapted from Ruth Ellen Wasem, “Cuban Migration to the United States: Policy and Trends,” Congressional Research Service, June 2, 2009, pp. 5-8, (accessed Sept.. 2009); Kaiser Family Foundation, “Florida: Average Monthly Food Stamp Benefits Per person FY2002-FY2008,” (accessed Sept. 2009); U.S. Census Bureau, “Public Education Finances 2007,” July 2009, (accessed Sept. 2009).



(1) Cf. University of Miami Libraries, “The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon: A Unique Sea Exodus,” (accessed September 2009). For an extensive bibliography see Holly Ackerman, “The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon,” Duke University Libraries, (accessed September 2009).

(2) Cf. Andres Oppenheimer, Castro’s Final Hour (New York: Touchstone, 1993),

(3) Randall Monger and Nancy Rytina, “Annual Flow Report: U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2008,” March 2009, (accessed July 2009).

(4) Reuters, “Cuba lowers 2009 growth forecast to 2 percent,” Havana, May 24, 2009,

(5) Mary Beth Sheridan, “Cuba Agrees to Resume Immigration Talks with U.S.,” The Washington Post, June 1, 2009,

(6) Kelly M. Greenhill, “Engineered Migration as a Coercive Instrument: The 1994 Cuban Balseros Crisis,” Working Paper #12, February 2002, The Inter-University Committee on International Migration, (accessed Sept. 2009).

(7) See U.S. Department of State, “Fact Sheet: The Cuban Adjustment Act,” for the complete text of the current legislation which since 1966 has enabled Cuban refugees, asylum-seekers, and other “entrants” who make their way onto U.S. territory to remain legally and permanently in the United States: (accessed September 2009).

(8) Damien Cave, “U.S. Overtures Find Support Among Cuban-Americans,” The New York Times, April 20, 2009,


* Hans de Salas del Valle is a Research Associate, Cuba Transition Project, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.