Cuban Immigration to the United States
The views expressed on this page are those of individual authors and may not reflect the views of the U.S. government. The information contained herein should be used for information purposes only.
For many Cubans, reaching U.S. soil is highly desired. Living in a socialist country under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro and now Raul Castro has brought about more equality but it has also limited many others. Many individuals seek political freedom and a democratic form of government. Some Cubans also seek to live in a land of capitalism where there are fewer restrictions placed on individuals and more opportunities. Individuals living in Cuba who are against the Castro regime are not free to express themselves and their lives may be threatened if they dare to speak out or to assemble anti-Castro groups in their homeland. Many Cubans have family already in the United States, and are looking to join them. Sometimes they turn to smugglers, who can charge thousands of dollars, or they may resort to making homemade boats and even rafts for the 90 mile journey from Cuba to Florida. Others fly to another country such as Mexico, and try to enter the United States from another border. The journey to the United States is often dangerous. Unfortunately, children and adults sometimes end up losing their lives in their efforts to reach American soil.
In the summer of 1994, there was a drastic wave of over 30,000 Cubans that tried to enter the United States. As a result, the U.S. and Cuban government tried to work out an immigration agreement. Cuba agreed to do a better job of patrolling their seas to prevent Cubans from leaving their country. If they were not successful in reaching Florida soil and were intercepted by the United States Coast Guard, who is responsible for overseeing America’s seas and shores, the Cuban government also agreed that there would be no reprisal against the Cubans who were returned. However, in reality Cubans that are sent back to Cuba after unsuccessfully trying to immigrate to the United States usually face some kind of punishment by the Cuban government such as imprisonment. The general rule is that once an individual reaches American soil and is out of American waters, they are allowed to remain in the U.S. This controversial policy is often referred to as the “wet foot, dry foot policy.” However, there are some exceptions to this rule and not all Cubans who are intercepted at sea before reaching American soil are returned to Cuba. For example, a Cuban who is fleeing from political persecution may be allowed to resettle in another country besides the United States or even possibly in the United States if their lives are at risk in Cuba.
In 1994, the U.S. set a quota of 20,000 immigrant visas annually for Cubans. Of this number, 5,000 come from a lottery system. This special lottery administered by American officials in Havana gives Cubans permanent U.S. residency. However, it has not been done on annual basis since its implementation in 1995. To gain a visa from this special lottery is highly desired by Cubans since those selected are entitled to a Green Card and work assistance in the United States. In addition, children of the winners of the lottery are allowed to enroll in the public school system. One of the biggest incentives is that lottery winners may be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship within five years of winning the lottery. However, there are some requirements as to who can apply for the lottery. Eligible applicants must be between 18 and 55 years old and have a minimum of a high school education. Eligible individuals must also have been employed for the past two years. After winning the lottery, applicants are required to pass an immigration visa interview as part of the screening process. The interview is conducted by the U.S. Cuban Interests Section in Havana and the applicant must also submit medical records and any criminal records. The purpose of the screening process is to ensure that the applicant will not become a burden to the United States government. Lottery winners are entitled to bring their spouse and children under 21 years of age to the United States.
Throughout the years there have been many publicized cases of Cubans who get intercepted before reaching American soil. The interception of Elian Gonzalez in 2000 is such an example. Elian is a Cuban child who had survived the voyage from Cuba to Florida along with two other Cubans on an inner tube. Two fishermen handed them over to the U.S. Coast Guard and temporary custody of Elian was given to his great uncle. Elian's mother along with ten others made the voyage but did not survive. The mother had taken the child without the father’s permission and as a result, a child custody case ensued between Elian’s relatives in Miami and his father back in Cuba. The attorney of Elian's relatives residing in Miami claimed that Elian Gonzales should remain in the U.S. under political asylum because this would result in a better life for him. Conversely, the Cuban government along with Elian’s father demanded that the child be returned to Cuba. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the child could not file for political asylum because he was too young and thus only his parent could make a decision. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that they would not hear any appeals for Elian Gonzales and the relatives were ordered to turn Elian over to American authorities so that he could be reunited with his father. The relatives refused to turn him over and a SWAT team was brought in to take custody of the child. This very public custody battle lasted for about seven months and was widely covered in the media. The immigration plights of Cubans fleeing to the U.S. do not normally receive this amount of extended coverage, but they do occur on a continuous basis. The dream of reaching U.S. soil for many Cubans is still very much alive.