It began as a small-boat exodus of several thousand Cubans who were welcomed here as refugees from the Castro Government. As the number of refugees swelled, many Americans became increasingly upset as the Cuban Government labeled those sailing to southern Florida from the port of Mariel misfits and outcasts.
Today, three years and 120,000 Cuban refugees later, experience and some success stories appear to have disproved many predictions that dire consequences would stem from this sudden injection of refugees, few of whom spoke English and most of whom possessed minimal marketable skills.
Crime among adult refugees has not run rampant year in and year out, as many had feared, and crime among juveniles has fallen far short of predictions by a local judge. Work and a pursuit of English have been taken seriously by many, according to workers involved with the refugees.
Among the success stories of those who made the trip from Mariel Harbor is Eduardo Suarez, a television news photographer in Miami, who recently won a Florida Emmy. Jesus Sarmiento became the first of the refugees to graduate from college in this country, finishing at Florida International University this spring with an engineering degree and a 3.5 grade point average. At the Citrus Grove Junior High School here, Jacqueline Olivera and Addys Martinez, two 15-yearsolds, are at the head of their classes academically.
A Slow Adjustment
Yet, adjusting to life in America, some refugees and resettlement workers say, has been a slow, painful process for many, complicated by language and a generally negative stigma attached to being a ”Marielito,” as the refugees have become known.
Juan Molina, a 33-year-old artist, has searched as far as Texas for permanent work, but the quest has been frustrated by his inability to speak English and his lack of a high school equivalency certificate. Miguel Hernandez, a 27-year-old laborer, has had much the same experience. And 52-year-old Jose Collado, who eventually got a job as a hotel worker in southern Florida’s tourist season, says he has stopped counting the times he has been refused work.
Then there is the question of the refugees’ long-term legal status. Congress is debating an immigration bill that includes several proposals to resolve the permanent status of the Marielitos, officially classified by the Immigration and Naturalization Service as ”entrants,” but the fate of the bill is uncertain. The refugees are not likely to be deported, if, for no other reason, because Fidel Castro has said he will not take them back.
Meanwhile, Carter and Reagan Administration actions are being challenged in Federal court in Atlanta. The questions focus on due process as it affects restrictions imposed on entrants, whether international law sanctions the kind of open-ended detention some of the Cubans contend they are being subjected to, and whether the executive branch has abused its power on parole policy and procedures.
The outcome is likely to have a far-reaching effect on future immigration law. Its immediate effect would be upon 500 Cuban felons who have been detained since coming here, and 500 others who have been detained on a variety of charges arising since they arrived.
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‘Things Have Worked Out’
”On the whole things have worked out very well,” said Denise Blackburn, director of the program staff for the Justice Department’s Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program in Washington. ”When you consider that we were a country of first asylum and received nearly 125,000 people between April and August 1980, we have remarkably few cases of people who are problems.”
That view is generally shared here in Dade County, where 70,000 to 90,000 of the Cubans are estimated to have settled. ”It is kind of a miracle that these people have been able to survive here and make the progress that they have,” said Eduardo Padron, a vice president of the Miami-Dade Community College, who in 1980 was chairman of the Spanish-American League Against Discrimination. ”They started out on the wrong foot,” he said, reciting reports, believed to have originated in Cuba, that the refugees were hardened criminals, mental patients, homosexuals and espionage agents. A ‘Negative Reaction’
When criminals and others did turn up among the masses of refugees, that was the point at which some people stopped calling the movement the ”freedom flotilla” and downgraded it to ”boatlift” It was also the time, those interviewed say, that the welcome mat put out by Cuban-American volunteers in Key West was pulled in..
”Over all, I feel they have survived the negative reaction and overall lack of reception,” said Mr. Padron. ”Most have assimilated pretty well.”
Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, executive director of Catholic Community Services for the Archdiocese of Miami, said positive aspects of the Mariel refugee era had made it a ”remarkable” experience, given the magnitude of the troubles the exodus posed.
Many of the refugees were forced to leave spouses and children behind, he said, and some have become involved in crimes here. Others, he said, have been subjected to racial discrimination because they are black. ”They were pushed to the margin of society,” he said.
Studies have found those who came here three years ago different in many ways from the two waves of Cuban exiles in the 1950’s and 60’s. These differences compounded resettlement problems.
A Reflection of Country Now
Demographic studies by Juan Clark of Miami-Dade Community College have confirmed most assessments that the Mariel refugees come closest of the groups to being representative of Cuba’s population as it has developed since the Castro takeover in 1959.
In the first wave, 1959-62, , 200,000 Cubans came in an organized airlift. More than 90 percent were white middle-aged, well-educated people. They had benefitted from the system that preceded the Castro Government and have established themselves in the social, business and political life in this country. For the most part they came in family units.
In the second wave, 1965-70, 270,000 people who arrived, first by boat then in a more organized airlift. They were also mostly white, but 24 percent were black or mulatto. These were largely educated and many worked at trades and came from Cuba’s working class. Again, most came with their families.
In the case of the Mariel refugees, Dr. Clark’s study of immigration records found that the large majority were blue-collar workers, less educated, mostly younger males. These had a higher level of divorce than those before them. About 20 percent were not allowed to bring their families and 20,000 males were separated from their wives. Most of the Mariel refugees spoke only Spanish and about half were black. Sought to Feed Family
The Cuban Government stirred the coals of fear by declaring that many of those being sent to America were criminals and social misfits, a fear that was fanned by unrest at several refugee detention camps.
Also, a worsening of the dismal crime scene here in 1980 and early ’81 prompted many to point to the Mariel refugees. In a 1981 report by the Dade County grand jury on refugees and crime, the jury said that while Mariel felony arrests had contributed greatly to the 25 percent increase in the caseload over the pre-1980 period, the part attributed to Mariel refugees had been overestimated.
A new allegation about the refugees emerged in recent court testimony when a convicted drug smuggler identified himself as a Cuban agent and said that the Cuban Government smuggled in 7,000 spies in the boatlift, and they were ordered to flood this country with illegal drugs and to spread propaganda. The Cuban Government has refused to comment on those charges, which have met with some credence among the police and State Department but little among those who worked with the Mariel refugees.
Juan Molina was one of the ”criminals” released from Cuba. He said he had served nine and a half years of a 10-year prison sentence for stealing a cow to feed his family. When he told American immigration officials that he had been in prison, he spent 17 months in detention here, waiting for a Government decision on what to do with him and several thousand other Cubans.
Upon his release in November 1981, Mr. Molina got a job at a sign painting company that lasted two days. He was on commission and was paid $18. He then went to Texas in search of work, ”but found no luck.” ”The work was no good,” he said. He returned to Miami where he works as a house painter.
Mr. Molina says he is working at almost any job he can find while trying to learn English and pass a high school equivalency examination. ”Here, if I want to study something, and have the desire and enthusiasm, I can do it,” he said. ”That’ll be the glory for me.” Talks of Discrimination
Jose Collado, a thin black man with salt-and-pepper gray hair, had been in the merchant marine much of his life. He came here expecting to find ”liberty,” he said. While he is able to enjoy more things here than in Cuba, he said, life has been only ”so-so.”
His inability to speak English, his being a Marielito, and the color of his skin have been drawbacks. ”I thought at the time, discrimination, racism is still alive,” said Mr. Collado. After more than a year’s search for regular work, he found a job as a hotel worker at $3.50 an hour last year. But it was seasonal work and he was laid off last month. He is job hunting again though, and taking English lessons. ”I plan to live the rest of my life here,” he said.
Despite the frustrations, Cecil Gaudie, Miami director of the International Rescue Committee, says that 85 percent of the Mariel refugees have jobs and can look after themselves. Mr. Gaudie, like others involved in refugee resettlement, takes offense at reports that have focused upon the negative side of the Mariel exodus. ”The silent majority is almost forgotten,” he said. ”What you almost always here about now is the few that are complaining.” Response of the Schools
To accommodate 15,000 Mariel refugees who are estimated to have entered Dade County public schools in the 1980-81 school year, the system spent $16.5 million, according to Dr. Tee Greer, assistant superintendent for Federal projects administration. The Federal Government reimbursed the county $5 million, he said, while the rest of the cost was made up with budget cuts in other county departments.
Dade County and its municipalities, including Miami, estimate that they spent $130 million absorbing the refugees in 1980-81, and were reimbursed only a fraction of that by Federal agencies. The refusal of the Government to reimburse these local governments fully remains a source of tension here.
A positive note is sounded by Judge Seymour Gelber, administrator of the Dade County Juvenile Court. Three years ago he predicted that juvenile crime among Hispanic children would double by now. The prediction was based on a spot check of juvenile records then. A forthcoming report, he said in an interview, will show that his predictions not borne out.
”I think a close examination will show that it was not as evil a situation as we may have thought.” the judge said. ”It’s not a big issue in the community anymore.”