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Mariel Boatlift: The tide turns

Mariel Key West
Florida Division of Recreation and Parks
Public Domain
Florida Marine Patrol officer monitoring the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 in Key West, Florida

You can find the transcript for this episode here.

The 1980 event that came to be known as the Mariel Boatlift marked a turning point in U.S. immigration policy.

Faced with widespread internal dissent, the Communist regime of Cuban president Fidel Castro made a dramatic announcement in April of 1980: anyone who wanted to leave the country could leave through the port of Mariel, just west of Havana.

Cuban-Americans in Miami, who by this time numbered in the hundreds of thousands, got the memo. Within days, a steady convoy of boats was leaving from South Florida to pick up family and friends from Cuba, and bring them to Florida.

About 125,000 total would arrive before the year was over.

The unilateral move by the Castro regime and the immediate grassroots response to it took President Jimmy Carter by surprise, as images of boat after boat of refugees pouring into the country made headlines. In May, Carter gave a speech commanding that no new trips to Cuba should be made.

“Persons who violate this requirement and who violate U.S. immigration and customs laws by traveling to Cuba to pick up additional passengers will be subject to civil fines and to criminal prosecution,” said Carter. “Furthermore, boats used to bring people unlawfully to this country will be seized.”

Several dozen boats were seized by the U.S. Coast Guard, and in response Cuban-Americans took to the streets to protest, screaming “We want our boats!” After several high-profile drowning incidents, the Carter Administration changed its tune, and soon the Coast Guard began assisting boats returning to Florida with refugees on board.

Within days of the exodus beginning, the Dade County government set up a processing center and temporary holding site at the Dade County Fairgrounds near Florida International University. Merrett Stierheim, the Dade County manager at the time, remembered the situation as being a total mess.

“I asked the person that I had in charge, I said: ‘Where are the feds? Where are the federal people here to handle this? This is an international event.' No one was there,” said Stierheim. “So I directed that I wanted an ID, I wanted police ID, fingerprints and photographs of everyone there that was coming in and processed. Get names, age, some personal data. Some kind of a record of who's coming into this country.”

Eventually, the federal government did make its presence felt. The Carter Administration began using a Cold War-era missile testing site near Krome Avenue on the edge of the Everglades as a temporary processing center for Cuban arrivals.

Fort Walton Beach Refugee processing Mariel
Florida State Archives
Public Domain
Cuban refugees wait to be processed at a repurposed military base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida during the Mariel Boatlift in May of 1980. The site came to be known as Camp Libertad. Several military bases were used in this manner during the Mariel Boatlift.

With few exceptions, Cuban refugees only spent a day or two in the facility, in sharp contrast to Haitian refugees, who were still being held for long periods of time in jails upon arrival.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees coming into the country and growing anger from Americans against the sudden influx, the federal government needed more space for processing. Quickly, the Carter Administration began shipping tens of thousands of Cuban refugees to repurposed military bases across the country for processing. The refugees sent to these military bases were disproportionately Black or of a dark skinned complexion.

“It’s an experiment for the federal government and the immigration service, in how to hold tens of thousands of people,” said Brianna Nofil, an immigration detention researcher at the College of William and Mary. “That is the moment where they say: 'Okay, now it’s gonna be politically, socially viable to make an argument for detention centers.'”

Detention by Design is funded by The Shepard Broad Foundation, in honor of its founder whose immigration story includes detention at age 14 - but also the warm embrace of the Miami community.