To appear in Population and
Policy Review, Summer 1986
Three Years Later:
The Adaptation Process of 1980
(Mariel) Cuban and Haitian Refugees
in South Florida*
Department of Sociology
The Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland 21218
Department of Sociology
Florida International University
Miami, Florida 33199
Department of Sociology
The Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland 21218
*This study was conducted with the support of the Sociology Program, National Science
In recent years, southern Florida has experienced rapid new inflows of immigrants
from Central America and the Caribbean. Since the arrival in 1980 of Mariel (Cuban) and
Haitian immigrants to this area, a great deal of speculation has emerged as to the
adaptation of these two groups to south Florida and the impact which their presence has
wielded on the social and economic arenas in that region. In this paper, we present
selected background characteristics of representative samples of both groups and discuss
our empirical findings on the labor market experiences, social networks, and educational
experiences of the immigrants included in our sample. While the two groups minimally
differ from earlier cohorts of their compatriots entering south Florida, their experiences
since arriving to Florida have been quite different. Both the Cuban and Haitian
immigrants arriving in 1980 demonstrate higher levels of unemployment than their
counterparts who arrived earlier; however, the existence of the Cuban economic enclave in
Miami did facilitate the entry of a greater number of Cubans than Haitians into the
formal labor market. Initial evidence indicates that significant numbers of individuals from
both groups participate in the informal labor market, often receiving less than the
The exodus of 1980 from Mariel, Cuba and the simultaneous arrival of
large numbers of Haitian boat people represented one of the most significant
episodes in modern American immigration history. The image of thousands of
ragged refugees arriving in overloaded boats from Mariel, and of desperately poor
Haitians coming aboard barely seaworthy crafts, had a profound impact on the
American public mind (Clark et.al., 1981; Bach et.al., 1981). The two new inflows
settled for the most part in South Florida where numerous voices were raised
against their presence and its consequences for the local population. A study
conducted jointly by Johns Hopkins University and two Miami-area universities
sought to clarify the socio-economic origins of these new refugees and the
principal features of their adaptation process after three years in the United
Statistically-representative samples of Mariel refugees and Haitian boat
people were interviewed in Dade County and two contiguous counties during late
1983 and early 1984. Most respondents had lived in the United States for
approximately three years at the time of the survey. In this report we present
selected characteristics of both samples and compare them with those of earlier
Cuban and Haitian arrivals. The study was supported by a grant of the National
Science Foundation to Johns Hopkins University. In Miami, the project was based
at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies of Florida International
University. Miami-Dade Community College also provided personnel and logistical
Methodology and Comparative Findings
Table I presents the distribution of both samples by locality and sex' of
respondents. The project drew statistically-representative samples from the areas
of principal Cuban and Haitian concentrations in South Florida. The Cuban
survey encompassed the cities of Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah, and unincorporated
Dade County. The Haitian survey comprised the "Little Haiti" sections of Miami
and Ft. Lauderdale and the town of Belle Glade. Within each locality, areas of
high refugee concentration were delimited and blocks within them were selected
at random. Within selected blocks, all households containing at least one Mariel
refugee or recent Haitian arrival were included in the sample. A total of 514
Cubans and 499 Haitians were interviewed. Results of the study are
representative of the two refugee populations in South Florida: they also shed
light on both their social origins and their early adaptation process.
Table 1 about here
As a point of reference, the tables below include comparable data from
the 1980 Census as well as from an earlier study of Cuban refugees arriving in
1973 and re-interviewed in 1976, that was conducted by Portes and his
Who Are the Refugees from the Mariel and Haitian Boatlifts?
Table II presents several background characteristics of both samples. On
the average, Mariel refugees are much older than Haitian boat arrivals, but within
the Cuban population, the Mariel group is much younger. The median age of our
Haitian respondents, 29 years, closely matches that reported by the Census for
Haitians nation-wide. Close to half of both samples were single at arrival and, as
with age, there was no significant difference between males and females. By
contrast, only 17 percent of 1973 Cuban refugees were single. The significance
of these findings is that married immigrants tend to have more extensive social
networks in places of arrival and encounter less difficulty in finding employment
(Portes and Stepick, 1984).
Table II about here
Despite the widely publicized image of these immigrants as human
"rift-raft" rejected by their own societies, results of the study indicate that they
do not differ significantly from earlier refugees in important respects and that
they have positive characteristics in comparison with the respective national
populations. Mariel Cubans come overwhelmingly from urban origins, primarily the
city of Havana; they even display a slight advantage with respect to past urban
experience relative to earlier Cuban refugees. Immigrants whose origins are in
large cities, as opposed to small towns or rural areas, tend to have greater
information about the receiving society and a greater propensity to accept its
values and life-styles, as demonstrated by their generally higher rates of
naturalization after several years (Portes and Curtis, 1985). Haitians come more
frequently from rural origins than Cubans, but the proportion who resided in cities
over 50,000, primarily Port-au-Prince, is significantly higher than in the Haitian
population as a whole (Miller, 1984; Stepick, 1982).
A similar pattern is found for education. The average education of Mariel
refugees in our sample is 9.1 years and the proportion having completed high
school is 25 percent; both figures compare favorably with those for Cubans
arriving during the early seventies. Haitian refugees come from more modest
educational backgrounds. -Their proportion of high school graduates is much lower
than among the pre-1980 Haitian population of the United States. Even then,
however, the 5 average years of education in our sample represent a considerable
gain over the Haitian population as a whole, 75 percent of which is illiterate
(Lundahl, 1979; Miller, 1984).
In addition, both groups of refugees have acquired considerable education
in the United States, particularly in English. Between 1980 and 1983, Mariel
Cubans attended an average of five months of formal courses, a figure higher
than among 1973 arrivals after a similar period (three years of U.S. residence).
Haitian refugees received even more formal education, doubling the 1973 Cuban
Results reported in table II concerning knowledge of English are based on
an objective test and not on subjective self-reports. Mariel Cubans performed
more poorly on this test than either 1973 Cuban refugees or Haitians.
Fifty-seven percent of our 1980 Cuban respondents spoke no English after three
years in the United States, a figure 13 points higher than among the other two
groups. On the other hand, however, roughly one in five 1980 Cuban and Haitian
refugees spoke English at least passably after three years of residence, a figure
similar to that among earlier Cuban arrivals. Finally. 14 percent of Mariel
refugees had professional and managerial occupations in Cuba and an additional 24
percent were skilled blue-collar workers. The figures are actually more favorable
than among their 1973 predecessors. Among Haitians, the combined total of
individuals with professional and skilled backgrounds reaches 31 percent, a figure
which again indicates much positive selection relative to the source Haitian
population (Perushek, 1984; Miller, 1984).
In summary, the point of these findings is that the "human capital" brought
aboard the Mariel and Haitian flotillas was neither insignificant nor inferior to
that among earlier refugee cohorts. In terms of education, work experience, and
pursuit of additional education, Mariel Cubans are quite comparable to earlier
refugee arrivals. Haitians come from more modest origins which are, however,
considerably above average for their country of origin; they have also
demonstrated greater willingness to acquire an education in the United States
than Cubans and seem somewhat more proficient in English than their Cuban
What are the Key Problems Facing the 1980 Refugees?
Although the individual characteristics of the Cubans and Haitians arriving
in 1980 do not indicate massive disadvantages, our study indicates that their
problems of adaptation have been far more dramatic. Table III presents the
relevant information. The number of Mariel Cubans unemployed and looking for
work at the time of the survey represented 27 percent of the sample, a figure
thrice as large as among the U.S. Cuban population in 1979 and at least twice as
large as among Cuban refugees arriving in the seventies. The corresponding
figure among Haitians is 59 percent, decreasing among males to 39 percent.
These percentages are more than three times the corresponding unemployment
rates among the pre-1980 Haitian population.
Table III about here
These overwhelming unemployment levels are not, however, the whole story.
Among those gainfully employed, median earnings in 1979 constant dollars were
slightly over $500 per month for Cubans and $400 for Haitians. For comparison,
Cuban refugees arriving during the early seventies earned the equivalent of (1979)
$765 on the average after three years in the country. Median household incomes
among Mariel Cubans at the time of the survey was $786 in 1979 dollars, a
figure $83 lower than among the 1973 refugees after the same period in the U.S.
and almost $500 less than for the U.S. Cuban population as a whole.
Haitian households in our survey received a median of S461 in 1979
dollars, less than half that reported by the Census for the Haitian population
nationwide. These abysmal income levels are reflected in the poverty status of
our samples. Twenty-six percent of Mariel Cuban households and fully 61 percent
of Haitian boat people lived in poverty after three years in the United States.
By comparison only 8 percent of 1973 Cuban refugee households experienced
poverty after three years in the United States and the Census figure for the two
pre-1980 immigrant populations hovered between 20 and 25 percent.
Recent Cuban and Haitian refugees are thus severely disadvantaged
economically not only in comparison with the American population as a whole, but
also relative to their own communities. At the same time, however, Mariel
Cubans seem to fare consistently bitter than Haitioin boritpeople within an
otherwise dismal situation. This trend is confirmed by the bottom figures of
Table III. Haitians are not only unemployed more frequently, but they stay
unemployed longer than Cubans. Moreover, among 1980 refugees who have found
employment, the occupational status differences are considerable. Thirteen
percent of Mariel Cubans in this situation are self-employed, a figure which is
actually higher than among 1973 arrivals after three years in the United States;
among Haitians, only one respondent was found to own his own business.
Approximately 10 percent of employed Mariel refugees have attained professional
or managerial positions, a level which compares favorably with the 1973 cohort;
the corresponding figure among Haitian refugees is one percent. Employed
Haitians concentrate overwhelmingly in domestic service, farm labor, and unskilled
What Accounts for the Differences?
The dismal economic situation portrayed by the .above results is
subjectively perceived: Thirty-one percent of Cubans and fully 52 percent of
Haitians declared that economic difficulties were the principal problem that- they
had confronted since arrival. This response was more frequent than language
barriers, family separation, cultural adaptation, or any other. These results
suggest a two-fold question: First, what accounts for the singularly unsuccessful
performance of these groups in the South Florida economy, despite the "human
capital" and motivations brought from their home countries? Second. what
accounts for the consistent differences observed between Cubans and Haitians
with regard to both employment and income?
Concerning the first question, Mariel Cubans in particular were not at a
significant disadvantage in terms of education or other skills with respect to
earlier Cuban refugee cohorts. Three things were different. however: 1) the 1980
arrivals were refused political asylum in the United States, being assigned instead
a temporary status as "entrants, status pending." They thus became ineligible for
assistance under the 1980 Refugee Act or earlier programs; subsequent aid,
including job-training and employment assistance, was either late or more limited
than that available to earlier refugees. 2) Many Mariel Cubans lacked kin and
friends living in the United States who could provide assistance during the early
resettlement period. Absence of such networks also made it harder to find
suitable employment, particularly in Cuban-owned enterprises. 3) The negative
image which the estimated 5 percent of mental health patients and social deviants
aboard the Mariel flotilla gave to the entire exodus generated an unfavorable
reception within the Cuban community itself.
Evidence of the last two points is presented in Table IV. Mariel entrants
had an average of only three relatives awaiting them in the United States as
opposed to ten for Cubans arriving in the early seventies. The amount of help
received from these kin networks was also reported to be considerably lower in
1980 than what it had been in 1973. Discrimination by Anglos is not perceived
as a problem among Mariel Cubans. Only 2 percent of our respondents reported
frequent experiences of discrimination by white Americans. This result stands in
stark contrast with the 75 percent of the sample who indicated that "older"
(pre-1980) Cubans discriminated against them and the 21 percent who reported
frequent experiences of anti-Mariel discrimination in the Cuban community.
Yet, despite these massive disadvantages, 1980 Cuban refugees fared
significantly better than their Haitian counterparts. Part of the reason is the
lower educational levels of the latter, although English skills are actually more
extensive among Haitians than Cubans. A second factor is the great feebleness
of social networks among Haitian refugees. The average number of kin awaiting
them on arrival was 1.5, which means that many had no one. No matter how
much support the few existing relatives or friends were willing to provide, it
would not have gone far given their number and their own frequently difficult
A final reason for the gap has to do with the presence of a fairly
well-developed Cuban enclave economy in Miami. Mariel refugees with the
necessary networks and contacts could find suitable employment in Cuban-owned
enterprises. Knowledge of English is less necessary for such jobs, while
Cuban-acquired education counts for more within the enclave than in the "outside"
labor market (Wilson and Portes, 1980; Portes and Bach, 1985). Thus, immigrant
economic advancement in South Florida is not only a matter of having extensive
family networks and obtaining their support, but of the kind of help this support
can yield. Immigrants who come into a setting where a significant segment of
the local economy is in the hands of their co-nationals can put their work skills
and social contacts to greater advantage than those who must fend for
themselves in the open labor market.
Table IV about here
Evidence of this process is presented in the bottom rows of Table IV.
Forty-two percent of employed Mariel refugees worked in 1983 in firms owned by
other Cubans. Added to the self-employed whose businesses catered unanimously
to a mostly Cuban clientele, this figure means that over half (55%) of employed
1980 arrivals had been absorbed in the Cuban enclave economy after three years.
In contrast, only 1 percent of the Haitian refugees worked for a co-national.
Instead, their employers were Anglos, Blacks, and Latins.
Contrary to common belief, employment in the immigrant enclave economy
is not necessarily more advantageous than outside of it. As seen in Table IV,
Mariel refugees working in Cuban-owned firms earned about the same on the
average as those employed in Anglo-owned enterprises or elsewhere.
What Can be Done?
Widespread unemployment and poverty among these refugee groups indicate
that their adaptation process has been most problematic. Clearly, the principal
responsibility for this situation lies not with their own abilities and motivations
but with the social context that received them. These have been unwelcome
immigrants, wanted apparently by no one and even lacking at times a friend or
relative to ease the first steps of adaptation. Should this situation continue
indefinitely, it could easily result in the rise of a group of "unmeltable ethnics"
and their mass entry into criminal or underground activities. Although there is
little evidence of crime in our samples, we have estimated that approximately
one-third of employed Cubans and Haitians worked in 1983 for "informal"
enterprises in garment, construction, commerce, and the like which violated tax,
minimum wage, and labor standards laws. This.estimate is based on a
discriminant analysis of responses to employment and income items in our 1985
survey; results suggest that many of these refugees have been compelled to
accept highly exploitative jobs as the only alternative to unemployment (Portes
and Stepick, 1984).
Of the two groups, Cubans are the less problematic. The relatively
successful process of incorporation of pre-1980 Cuban refugees to American
society was based, to a large extent, on independent entrepreneurship and the
construction of an ethnic enclave economy in Miami (Boswell and Curtis, 1984;
Wilson and Martin, 1982). Our data on self-employment and occupational
aspirations of 1980 arrivals indicate that they are poised to follow the same path,
although they have been seriously hampered by lack of governmental support and
by the rejection experienced in their own community. In their case, subsidized
credit programs to help development of small businesses would be especially
appropriate. This assistance should be complemented by special ESL instruction
programs to help counteract the tendency of first-generation Cubans to remain
monolingual, especially when confined into ethnic neighborhoods (Boswell and
Curtis. 1984; Portes and Bach, 1985).
Changing existing negative stereotypes about Mariel refugees within the
Cuban community is principally the responsibility of the existing Cuban-American
organizations. Although the Cuban-American National Foundation, the Cuban
National Planning Council, and the Spanish-American League against Discrimination
have all declared their support for Mariel immigrants, more work needs to be
done. This will require the active commitment and participation of
Cuban-American leaders, including those newly-elected to office in the city of
Miami and its environs. The presence of a diversified and influential
Spanish-language media in the area represents probably the most effective
instrument to reach recalcitrant elements in the Cuban community (Boswell and
Curtis, 1984). Public events, such as the Mariel Cultural Festival, held in Miami
in 1983. are also effective means of highlighting the common interests of members
of this minority.
Haitians face a much more difficult situation. In this case, it is not a
matter of incorporating the new refugees into a well-established immigrant
community since the latter did not exist for all practical purposes at the time of
their arrival. Signs of independent entrepreneurship among Haitians are still
feeble, although some efforts are being made in this direction. Nevertheless,
the overwhelming majority of Haitians aim at receiving paid work and it is this
need which must be addressed first. ESL programs and vocational training
targeted on the development or upgrading of occupational skills brought from Haiti
are the major priorities.
Along with them, it is important to strengthen the existing organizations
representing this minority. Given their recent arrival, few Haitians have become
citizens or are eligible to vote. They are thus collectively unable to counteract
widespread discrimination, from white and black Americans alike, through
established political channels (Miller, 1984; Stepick, 1984). Ethnic organizations
such as the Haitian Refugee Center, the Haitian Task Force, and the
Haitian-American Community Association of Dade (HACAD) are at present the only
voice of this group and, in the short-term at least, appear as the only viable
channels for easing a most difficult process of adaptation.
The most important measure, however, is regularizing the status of these
refugees in the United States. A majority of them have started to develop roots
in the local community and, despite the many difficulties confronted so far, intend
to stay. In our sample, fully 81 percent indicated that, were they free to make
the decision again, they would come to the United States. Although the present
Administration has vigorously pursued the program of high-seas interdiction against
new Haitian arrivals, it is not likely to press the case for deportation against
those who have been in the country for several years. Since this refugee group
is thus in the country to stay, it makes little sense to maintain it in a tenuous
legal status. Doing so compounds the serious adaptation problems of these
refugees and reinforces their vulnerability. A bill to regularize the status of
1980-81 entrants, both Cubans and Haitians, has been introduced by congressman
Peter Rodino and similar provisions are part of the Simpson-Rodino-Mazzoli
immigration reform bill. At the time of this writing, however, neither initiative
has been enacted.
Despite the drama surrounding their arrival and the many difficulties
confronted during their early years in the United States, we believe that the
process of adaptation of Mariel refugees and Haitian boatpeople can be successful
if aided by modest but well-designed public policies and by community support.
Since the context of reception of each group is so different, policies should be
tailored to meet their separate needs. Those outlined above will go a long way
toward smoothing the process of transition and moving these groups out of their
present pariah status and into full-fledged membership into our society.
Distributions of 1983-84 Cuban and Haitian Samples
by Area and Sex*
Males 70.3 57.7
otals 12.5 18.9
53.7 44.2 59.1
46.3 55.8 40.9
19.0 20.8 100.0
(95) (104) (199)
*Actual numbers in parentheses.
Place of Last
in Cities over
% High School
. Skilled Blue
% Clerical and
Employment, Income and Poverty
Employment % Unemployed-Total
% of Households
Past Three Years
Occupation % Self-employed[93
10.0 8.9 10.7
Social Networks, Perceptions of Discrimination,
and Participation in the Ethnic Economy
Number of Relatives
Help Received from
Has Suffered Dis-
Older Cubans Dis-
Has Suffered Dis-
Earnings by Ethnicit)
% Great Deal/
Little or None
% Anglo/Other White
 Results of this earlier research are summarized in Alejandro Portes and
Robert L. Bach, Latin Journ'ey, Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United
States, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Results pertaining to
1973 Cuban refugees are presented in Alejandro Portes, Juan Clark, and Manuel
Lopez; "Six Years Later, a Profile of the Process of Incorporation of Cuban
Exiles. in the United States," Cuban Studies 11 (July 1981): 1-24.
 In particular by groups such as the Haitian-American Community
Association of Dade (HACAD) and the Haitian Task Force with support from the
local Chamber of Commerce and outside agencies such as the Ford Foundation.
See Stepick. 1984.
 Source: Authors' research.
 Source: A. Portes and R.L. Bach. Latin Journey, Cuban and Mexican
Immigrants in the United States, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
 Foreign-born persons who arrived between 1970 and 1980. Source: U.S.
Bureau of the Census. Detailed Population Characteristics, United States Summary.
Washington, D.C., March 1984, Table 255.
 The 1973-76 and 1983-84 samples were limited to adults aged 18 to 65.
The Census figures include the entire population; exclusion of the under-18 and
over-65 categories does not alter them significantly.
 Source: A. Portes, J.M. Clark, and M.M. Lopez, "Six Years Later, a
Profile of the Process of Incorporation of Cuban Exiles in the United States,"
Cuban Studies 11 (July 1981): 1-24.
 Includes all those out of the labor market and is thus an overestimate
of the unemployment rate (involuntary) in this sample.
 Employed individuals only.
 For a household of three in the respective years: 1976, 1979, and
 In the Haitian survey, the question referred to discrimination by Black
 Includes other Latin employers.
Bach, R., J. Bach, and T. Triplett (1981). "The flotilla 'entrants': latest and
most controversial," Cuban Studies 11: 29-48.
Boswell, T. and J. Curtis (1984). The Cuban-American Experience. Totowa,
New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld.
Clark, J., J. Lasaga, and R. Reque (1981). The 1980 Mariel Exodus: An
Assessment and Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Council for Inter-American
Lundahl, M. (1979). Peasants and Poverty: A Study of Haiti. London:
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Perusek, G. (1984). "Haitian emigration in the early twentieth century,"
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Portes, A. and J. Curtis (1985). "Determinants of naturalization among recent
Mexican immigrants, re-analysis of a six year follow-up," Paper presented at
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Portes, A. and A. Stepick (1985). "Flight into despair, a profile of recent
Haitian refugees in South Florida," International Migration Review
Stepick, A. (1982). Haitian Refugees in the United States. London: Minority
Stepick, A. (1984). "The Haitian informal sector in Miami." The Urban Informal
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