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History Repeats Itself as Caribbeans Risk Their Lives at Sea to Reach the U.S.

Night time has arrived and you are standing on a beach miles from the city — whether it is Havana, Cuba or Port-Haitien, Haiti. You look towards the black sea and cannot distinguish it from the lightless sky. Despite doubts that the U.S. will be as welcoming as the smugglers promise, you pay the sum requested for a seat on the boat. You take to the water with no clue what direction you are headed; only reminded by the deafening crashes of waves that you are in the ocean. All your hope lies in eluding the U.S. Coast Guard until you reach soil, your vessel not capsizing, and no passengers being mauled by a bull shark.


The migration crisis in the U.S.-Mexico border has been making national headlines for months. But, relatively little attention has been given to its counterpart in Caribbean waters. Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 saw history repeat itself with a spike in seaborne migration, from Cubans and Haitians, who are among the top asylum seekers in Mexico, and migrant apprehensions in the U.S.-Mexico border. Last FY, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 6,182 Cuban migrants and 7,137 Haitian migrants. These figures are the highest they have been in years and correlate with the surge in migrants at the border. Migrants who take to the sea do not do so out of choice — they do not have the resources to safely fly into a South or Central American country and make the journey northward.

The rise in Cuban migration can be attributed to a storm of intense economic inflation and currency changes; intensified U.S. sanctions; and a strain on the public health system and tourism industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, island-wide demonstrations brought about a crackdown on hundreds of political dissidents, forcing activists, artists, and independent journalists into exile or lengthy prison sentences.

Similarly, the rise in Haitian migration came amidst the assassination of their former President Jovenel Moïse (after accusations of overstaying his term); lack of a working parliament; an earthquake, which resulted in over 2,000 deaths and destroyed 50,000 homes; increased gang violence and kidnappings; and of course, the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly powerful gangs have threatened, kidnapped, and murdered several judges, journalists, and aid workers, jeopardizing the judicial system and civil society. In June, Haiti’s largest courthouse, the Port-au-Prince Palace of Justice was seized by a gang known as “Five Segonn,” cutting off prosecutors’ access to an important judicial safe, which housed countless files needed for cases that implicated gang members.

“Whenever Haiti reaches national news, a lot is negative and misrepresented,” said Marvin Durogene, first generation Haitian-American at Yale. Durogene emphasized the importance of keeping the factors that have led Haiti to its current state in mind when discussing issues concerning the island. This year, the New York Times published a reporting series called “Haiti ‘Ransom’ Project,” in response to growing questions surrounding the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment in Haiti. Durogene stated that he “feels a responsibility” to recount Haitian history, remembering when many of his peers asked him how they could support Haitians after the assassination of former President Moïse.

These sentiments are echoed by Albert Laguna, Associate Professor at Yale who has been teaching “History and Culture of Cuba,” since 2017. In the class, Professor Laguna places, “a significant focus on Cuban migration waves to unpack historic moments of Cuban politics and U.S.-Cuba relations.” Cuban and Haitian migration, however, are rarely discussed in tandem in news despite having well documented and deeply intertwined migration histories.

During the 1980 Mariel boatlift, 125,000 Cuban refugees arriving on U.S. soil were labeled “Cuban-Haitian entrants” in response to accusations that the U.S. government was discriminating against Haitians by denying them legal protections granted to Cuban refugees. As a result, about 25,000 Haitian refugees were part of this migration wave. In light of the new “migration wave,” Professor Laguna has hosted guests in his class, such as lead reporter on Cuba at the Miami Herald, Dr. Nora Gámez Torres, can share her insights as a new wave unfolds in real time.

In that lecture, Dr. Torres informed students that unlike Cubans who are interdicted at sea and immediately brought back, Cubans in the U.S.-Mexico border are rarely deported. They are also, for the most part, allowed to proceed with a legal immigration process. This is partly because the Cuban government has not been accepting deportees, and partly because the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 provides Cubans a legal pathway to documentation in the U.S.

By contrast, Haitians have been met with a repatriation-centered approach with a long precedent. Concerns were raised nationally this year at the rate of Haitian expulsions when roughly 4,000 Haitians were expelled in just one month. Haitians seeking asylum status in the U.S. are often denied their right granted by the U.S. to be screened individually to determine whether they would face persecution or other violence if repatriated to Haiti. Denial of screenings point to glaring apathy over the dangerous environment Haitian migrants are subjected to when expelled to a country that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security itself redesignated it for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In an act of protest to these unrelenting procedures, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti Daniel Lewis Foote resigned in a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. In his resignation, Foote stated he “will not be associated with the United States' inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti.” The position remains vacant to this day.


Two days have passed. The smuggler who is navigating says that you’ll reach the Florida Keys in five days’ time if the current is right. You pass by a yola that doesn’t look much different from the one you are on. This one lies upside down in the water with no passengers to be found. The smuggler notices you staring and comments that the group was likely already rescued. Whether or not you believe the smuggler no longer matters, so you try not to think about it further as the yola ebbs out of sight.


Not all migrants take to the sea with the intention to reach Florida. Some travel north towards the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos as their final destination, while others make a stop on their path to the United States. Haitian migrants stop in Cuba when they are at risk of sinking or running low on sustenance. Others travel westward to Puerto Rico, crossing the Mona Passage, where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea meet to create the most dangerous strait in the Caribbean.

Yet, migrants who take to the sea often get interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard regardless of their intended destination. Once they are interdicted, they are either repatriated or temporarily detained in migrant camps in Guantanamo Bay for asylum screenings and resettlement in other countries. Migrant interdictions became an official task assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard under former President Ronald Reagan through an executive order in 1981, although their interdictions preceded this date. Even though U.S. law requires that migrants seeking asylum are able to apply and have their case evaluated, the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that U.S. protection laws such as these need not be enforced on interdictions in international waters, despite U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction being extended in international waters.


After five days, you finally see land in the distance. The entire group finds the energy to cheer despite severe dehydration. One hundred meters from shore, you plunge into the water because the yola has collapsed. While swimming, you notice a growing group of people at shore staring towards the boat. You also notice that one of your fellow rafters, a middle aged man, is drowning three meters to your right. It is too far to make out the expression on the groups’ faces, but as you attempt to pull the man towards your exhausted body, you pray that they help.


Those who arrive on U.S. soil face different policies, depending on their nationality and race. While Cubans have historically been some of the most privileged migrants in the U.S., Hatians have not been met with the same benefits.

The case of Cubans demonstrates the direct effects of providing adequate legal pathways for migrants. When Cubans have been welcomed with options for residency in the U.S., such as the 1994 agreement to admit 20,000 Cubans annually, the data clearly shows a decrease in Cuban interdictions. When Cubans have faced limited pathways for legal migration, there are clear spikes in not only Cuban interdictions, but also in Cuban migrant deaths and injuries. Tightened U.S. sanctions on Cuba exacerbated the economic crisis the island is currently facing, and in turn prompted a wave of Cuban seaborne migrants.

As of late, Cubans have also suffered cutbacks on legal migration with the termination of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy under the Obama administration. This policy allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to pursue U.S. residency one year and a day later. This policy came about after the 1994 Balsero crisis, when over 35,000 Cuban refugees left on makeshift rafts after riots on the island. Cubans have also faced increasingly restricted access to legal migration under the Trump administration, due to the reduced staffing of the U.S. embassy in Havana following health incidents that harmed American diplomats.

Despite U.S. institutions benefiting from Haitian tragedies, the U.S. government has not welcomed Haitians with access to legal migration. In fact, surges of seaborne Haitian migration have been cited as reasons for halting refugee processing, rather than as a cause for serious expansion of legal migration pathways for Haitians. The vast majority of interdicted Haitians are forcibly repatriated after being detained for indefinite periods of time. Few who are detained receive hearings; in 2005, only one migrant out of almost two thousand was granted refugee status. Today, there is still no significant pathway for Haitians, as thousands have been interdicted at sea and thousands more arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.

While Cubans have been historically privileged with more pathways for legal migration to the U.S. than Haitians, this should not be taken as an argument for the removal of their privileges as an equalizer. Instead, these recently revoked privileges should be restored and granted to Haitians as well. If there is anything the data has demonstrated over the decades, it is that migration is not an option for these groups. Migration is a need. For some, it is a life or death matter. Migrants are willing to risk their lives when their pleas for asylum are ignored. By refusing to provide safe, legal migration systems, the U.S. government is forcing Cubans and Haitians to choose between embarking on a dangerous journey or remaining in a precarious environment. The U.S. has a moral responsibility to open and expand legal pathways of migration for Cubans and Haitiansso they may stow their rafts for good.

Organizations to support:

To donate to the Haitian Bridge Alliance

To donate to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA)

To donate to Family Action Network

To donate to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

Writer’s Reflection

During FY 2022, I worked at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, where I drafted a weekly news brief that reported on weekly interdictions. Seeing this issue worsen in real time prompted me to write this article the summer. While I had vaguely understood the legal double- standard between how Cuban and Haitian migrants are treated, this article allowed me to better better understand how the law is created for this purpose.

I also felt it was important to incorporate an example of what a Caribbean migrant might experience while at sea since their migration journeys are less known. The narrative breaks used in this article was compiled from conversations I had while in Professor Albert Laguna’s class on Cuban history and culture, articles I read about migrant deaths at sea, and personal stories told to me by loved ones.

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