Caribbean Migration
to the United States

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By the late 1800s the United States had vested economic and political interests in the Caribbean. United States policy makers considered the region to be strategically important both for commercial routes to South America and for the defense of the southern U.S. mainland against wartime attack. For these reasons the U.S. government pursued an aggressive strategy to establish and maintain control over the political and economic affairs of the region.

To achieve this goal, the United States resorted to direct military intervention in four of the five island nations of the Greater Antilles (the West Indies island chain that encompasses the nations of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico). First the U.S. military occupied Puerto Rico and Cuba at the end of the Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1898. The U.S. military occupied Cuba until 1902, and withdrew only after the nation adopted the Platt Amendment in its constitution of 1901, giving the United States broad powers to intervene militarily. Puerto Rico has remained under the domination of the United States, becoming a commonwealth in 1952. The United States began to take a greater interest in the Caribbean region as it led construction of the Panama Canal (1904-1914) across the Isthmus of Panama to facilitate shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The United States again intervened in the region during World War I (1914-1918), when U.S. forces occupied Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916, on the pretext of maintaining political order within the countries. The United States military continued to occupy the Dominican Republic until 1924 and Haiti until 1934.

These military interventions further shifted domination of the political and economic affairs of the four Caribbean countries away from Europe and to the United States. U.S. capital investments increased dramatically, allowing the United States to exert control over significant economic sectors, most importantly the sugar trade, on which the countries depended. By the late 1920s, for example, American-owned sugar mills produced about three-quarters of Cuba's sugar. In addition, the United States established systems of labor recruitment to the United States in these countries.

Simultaneously, the period from 1900 to 1920 marked the initiation of mass labor migration from the Caribbean to the United States and the formation of the first large Caribbean communities in the United States (see Afro-Latino Cultures in the United States). This shift was part of a global transformation of migration processes: Rather than a colonizing migration from the expanding commercial centers to the subordinated regions, populations were now moving from the periphery to the new industrial centers. The shift was first evident in the case of Puerto Rico, due to its status as a U.S. territory. In about 1900 Puerto Ricans began to be hired as contract laborers, who were often treated more like indentured servants than free laborers, for plantations in other U.S. territories, mainly Hawaii, and in the southern and western United States. During World War I the recruitment of labor from the Caribbean (and Latin America) became more pronounced, as laborers from the region compensated for the reduced number of European immigrants to the United States. More than 100,000 Caribbean laborers were recruited for agricultural and menial jobs in the United States as part of war efforts.

From 1920 to 1945, however, the inflow of Caribbean migrants declined because of the demands of U.S. labor unions to restrict immigrants and because of the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II (1939-1945). As a consequence, "internal minorities," especially Southern blacks (see Great Migration) but also Puerto Ricans (who in 1917 were collectively granted U.S. citizenship under the Jones Act), became the main source of cheap labor for the industrial complex in the Northeast. New York City became one of the primary destinations for these two migrant groups. During World War II, Puerto Ricans were recruited through a federal war-effort program to work in agriculture and in industries in the Northeast.

As white workers advanced economically, the low-wage manufacturing jobs in the garment and textile industries became an undesirable economic sector identified with racial minorities. During the 1920s and 1930s African Americans became the main source of cheap labor in New York City's manufacturing sector and in low-wage services. Puerto Ricans were the second largest group, with approximately 30,000 newcomers in the 1920s. The racial discrimination they faced was reflected in the low wages they received, compared with whites, in the garment-industry sweatshops. As early as 1929, Puerto Ricans and African Americans earned from $8 to $13 per week while Jewish and Italian workers earned from $26 to $44 per week.

After World War II, migrations from the Caribbean to the United States increased to pre-1920s levels. This corresponded with another postwar demographic shift: The majority of women who had entered the labor force during the war were pushed back to their households by the patriarchal system, leaving a demand for labor. The overwhelming majority of Caribbean immigrants during the 1940s and 1950s were Puerto Ricans who were recruited for low-wage jobs in the post-war manufacturing and service industries in New York City.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 that brought Fidel Castro to power signaled a major transformation in the ethnic composition of Caribbean migrants to the United States: Cuban political refugees ranked first in total numbers of Caribbean immigrants during the 1960s and 1970s. Migration from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands (not including Puerto Rico and Cuba) also increased to proportions never seen before. These "new immigrants" displaced domestic minorities, mainly African Americans and Puerto Ricans, as the primary source of cheap labor in urban industrial center.

In the majority of cases, Caribbean migrants to the United States are those who can afford to get a visa and pay for the journey. Contrary to popular belief, scholarly research on migration shows that those who migrate are most often urban, educated, and skilled workers whose household incomes were relatively high in their sending societies. However, there are three significant exceptions to this pattern among Caribbean migrants to the United States: Puerto Rican migrations after 1950, Haitian political refugees from 1977 to 1981, and the exodus from Cuba in 1980.

With the extension of U.S. citizenship under the Jones Act in 1917, Puerto Ricans have not been subject to border restrictions like other Caribbean migrants. Before 1950 most Puerto Ricans who came to the United States were skilled and educated workers from urban areas who could afford the transportation expenses. After 1950 the cost of airline travel between the United States and its commonwealth was reduced significantly. Most of the nearly 645,000 Puerto Ricans who moved to the United States from 1950 to 1980 were from the unskilled, mainly rural, and low-income sectors of their society. The largest community continued to be in New York City, but other Puerto Ricans settled in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and other major cities during this period.

The undocumented Haitian immigrants who arrived in the United States as political refugees from 1977 to 1981 were another exception to the middle-class immigration pattern. During this period, from 50,000 to 70,000 Haitians arrived as "boat people," landing on the shores of southern Florida after crossing hundreds of miles of open sea aboard small boats. They were from a lower level of society and a more rural background than the approximately 90,000 legal Haitian immigrants who arrived from 1960 to 1980. Most of the undocumented immigrants settled in southern Florida while the legal immigrants settled largely in New York City, although Haitian communities also grew in Boston and other urban centers.

The third exception to the prevailing migration pattern was the 1980 exodus of 125,000 Cubans, including approximately 25,000 of African descent, in small boats from the Cuban port of Mariel to southern Florida. Most of these refugees came from working-class sectors, a departure from earlier Cuban migration flows, in which primarily the upper-middle class was represented.

The policies of the United States concerning migrants from the Caribbean have varied considerably, depending on strategic political considerations as well as on the social status and racial background of the incoming groups. These policies have largely determined whether these groups have been able to incorporate themselves successfully into American society.

Policies toward the Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations are best understood in light of U.S. strategies to gain prestige and influence in relation to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States showcased the anti-Castro community of Cuban exiles in Miami as an indicator of the shortcomings of the socialist system in Cuba. The U.S. government regarded the community's success as an important ideological weapon and provided more than a billion dollars in government aid to the community for business enterprises, education, and other social expenditures. The United States also showcased Puerto Rico as a capitalist model of development, in contrast to the Soviet model represented by Cuba, and encouraged the migration of Puerto Rico's lower strata as a way of eliminating the island's unemployment and shantytowns. This policy paved the way for the first mass airway migration in world history, as hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans traveled by airplane to the U.S. mainland after 1950. Because the showcase was the island itself rather than the migrants, the United States channeled its resources to the island. Those who migrated ended up in urban ghettos, with one of the highest poverty rates in the United States. These two case studies pose an interesting contrast in U.S. policy: While the pre-1980s Cuban migrants received all kinds of state assistance, facilitating successful incorporation into U.S. society, the Puerto Ricans were used as cheap labor with no similar state efforts to incorporate them successfully.

U.S. policies toward Haitian refugees have been discriminatory for racial as well as geopolitical reasons. In terms of race, there is a long history of negative stereotypes of Haitians in the United States, dating to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) that successfully abolished colonialism and slavery and established the world's first independent black republic. For instance, in the early 1980s the U.S. media circulated reports that the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the Western Hemisphere began in Haiti. Although later proved false, the reports stigmatized Haitians and damaged the country's tourist industry. The U.S. policy in the early 1990s of repatriating Haitian refugees stopped at sea was widely condemned as racist, notably by African American activist Randall Robinson, particularly when compared with the better treatment accorded to Cuban refugees. In terms of geopolitics, U.S. policy was long shaped by its support of the Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1986) as part of a containment strategy against communism in the region. Support for refugees would represent an indirect critique of a friendly, anticommunist dictatorship. Thus, in contrast to the Cuban refugees, who until 1995 were received with open arms, Haitians were detained in jails or simply returned to Haiti. In 1992 the U.S. granted political asylum to only about 10 percent of Haitians who requested it. In contrast to the warm welcome and economic assistance granted Cuban migrants who arrived before the exodus of 1980, the Haitian "boat people" in southern Florida encountered opposition to entry from the U.S. government, a discriminatory public opinion, and no ethnic enclave economy to serve as a buffer against discrimination. The Cubans who arrived in 1980, including many Afro-Cubans among them, experienced discrimination and lacked active government support, yet they had an entrepreneurial ethnic community that incorporated them at least more successfully (as reflected in unemployment and poverty rates) than the Haitians in southern Florida.

The class background of incoming migrants also is an important factor in determining their reception and incorporation. The skilled, white-collar immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti (both predominantly black, or Afro-Caribbean, groups) who arrived in New York City from 1965 to 1980 passed into American society almost unnoticed because of the city's large African American community and multicultural environment. (No public outcry occurred against the settlement of white-collar Haitians in New York, unlike the loud opposition to the settlement of the Haitian "boat people" in southern Florida.) These Jamaican and Haitian newcomers in New York often avoided racism directed against the African American community by emphasizing ethnic over racial identity. Distinctive cultural traits and continued ties to their homeland, for instance, have been used to emphasize differences from domestic minorities, reflecting a fear of loss of social status resulting from a "downward assimilation." First-generation Jamaican (and other West Indian) immigrants are often stereotyped among whites as "hard working" in contrast to allegedly "lazy" domestic minorities. In general, Jamaicans have been more successful economically, in terms of income and employment opportunities, than Haitians. This difference is in part attributable to having English as their first language. By 1990, for instance, the poverty rate of Jamaicans in New York City was 9 percent, while for Haitians it was 15 percent.

Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, the immigration policies of the United States have been shaped more often by domestic economic concerns and by the emergence of racist discourses against immigrants than by a foreign policy directed at undermining a competing superpower. This was clearly reflected in 1995, when in the wake of large-scale Haitian and Cuban refugee flows, the United States announced it would begin repatriating Cubans picked up at sea, reversing a decades-old policy of automatically granting them entrance and circumventing established asylum procedures. However, attempts by the U.S. government to contain such "refugee crises," and more broadly to restrict immigration, face a likely setback in continued mass migration from the Caribbean. This migration is fostered by economic and political crises in the region, by demand for cheap labor in the United States, and by established links between Caribbean communities in the United States and their countries of origin.

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