Brazilian immigrants

Economic and political instability in Brazil during the late twentieth century prompted unprecedented emigration fromthe country.

Read the full story

Colombian immigrants

Although Colombian immigrants are relative newcomers to the United States, their numbers began increasing greatly during the last decades of the twentieth century.

Read the full story

Cuban immigrants

Significance: The overwhelming majority of Cubans who have immigrated into the United States have settled in Florida, whose political, economic, and cultural life they have transformed. The first wave of Cuban refugees used the state as a base to oppose the Cuban government. The refugees of the 1960’s brought Cuban customs to Florida as well as virulently anticommunist beliefs. The sheer volume of the last wave of Cubans during the 1980’s exacerbated already tense racial relations with African American communities, especially in Miami, who felt politically and economically marginalized.

Cuban immigration waves have tended to follow periods of political repression in Cuba. Most Cuban immigrants have settled in Florida, a state only ninety miles from the coast of Cuba. By the year 2008, more than 1.24 million Cuban Americans were living in the United States, mostly in South Florida, where the population of Miami was about one-third Cuban. Many of these Cubans have viewed themselves as political exiles, rather than immigrants, hoping eventually to return to their island homeland after its communist regime falls from power. The large number of Cubans in South Florida, particularly in Miami’s "Little Havana,” has allowed them to preserve their culture and customs to a degree rare for immigrant groups.

Nineteenth Century Immigration

The tradition of Cuban political exiles coming to the United States began during the nineteenth century, when Spain still ruled the island. The first exiles arrived in 1823. Many of them hoped that the United States would annex Cuba, and they supported a failed Cuban revolt against Spain in 1867. During the 1890’s, the exiled Cuban nationalist leader José Martí organized a second revolt and sought the support of thousands of fellow Cuban exiles in New York and Florida. During the Spanish- AmericanWar of 1898, exiles fought on the American side but opposed the Platt Amendment of 1902 that afterward turned Cuba into a protectorate of the United States. After Cuba finally won its full independence, its government became an oppressive dictatorship. During the late 1920’s, Cuban exiles opposed to the government used Miami as a base to plot its overthrow in favor of democratic government.

Castro and Immigration

In 1959, a communist movement led by Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista to take power in Cuba. Castro immediately nationalized businesses and large land holdings, while attacking potential political opponents among the wealthy, entrepreneurs, and Batista supporters. Cubans who did not unconditionally support Castro appeared in media portrayals as enemies of the revolution. As Cubans had often done during past periods of political trouble, many sought temporary exile in the United States. However, unlike the past wave, this group of immigrants benefited from the political atmosphere in the United States fostered by ColdWar. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations enthusiastically supported Castro’s enemies as anticommunist freedom fighters.

Profile of Cuban immigrants

Country of origin


Primary language


Primary region of U.S. settlement

South Florida

Earliest significant arrivals


Peak immigration period

Late nineteenth century, 1960’s, 1980’s

Twenty-first century legal residents*

245,864 (30,733 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Between 1959 and 1962, 119,922 Cubans arrived in the United States. These people were primarily of Cuba’s elite: executives and owners of firms, big merchants, sugar mill owners, cattlemen, representatives of foreign companies, and professionals. They used whatever means were necessary to get out of Cuba. The most fortunate among them obtained U.S. immigrant, student, and tourist visas; others entered the United States indirectly, through countries such as Canada, where they applied for U.S. visas. About 14,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States in 1960 and 1961 alone through a clandestine U.S. program code-named "Operation Pedro Pan.” After 1961, Castro permitted emigrants to take only five dollars with them, while requiring them to surrender all other property to his government.

Settling in the United States

Although thousands of Cuban immigrants arrived in the United States nearly destitute, they were not without resources. Many were already familiar with the United States, which they had often visited for business or pleasure before the Cuban Revolution. Some also had business or personal contacts in the country to help them adjust. In addition, since Cuban culture itself was highly Americanized before 1960, the American way of life was not altogether alien to them. Moreover, as exiles fleeing a common enemy, they arrived with a strong sense of solidarity. In South Florida, where the bulk of exiles waited for Castro’s overthrow, those who had arrived earlier tried to ease the shock of the newcomers by advising them on matters such as securing U.S. social security cards, enrolling children in schools, and enlisting in the federally funded Cuban Refugee Program, which provided free medical care and food. The exiles themselves helped one another find jobs and living quarters.

Immigration from Cuba, 1920-2008

Immigration from Cuba, 1920-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.

The U.S. government attempted to relocate the newcomers throughout the country. The stated objective of the government’s resettlement efforts was to lighten the financial burden that the exiles presented to South Florida’s strained social institutions. The federal government may have also feared the social and political implications of having a large, increasingly frustrated, and heavily armed exile population concentrated in Miami. In any case, after the exiles realized that Castro’s government would not soon fall, many began to take advantage of resettlement assistance offered through the Cuban Refugee Program. Many wound up in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Boston, andWashington, D.C. They brought conservative political views and quickly established cultural organizations. Meanwhile, a four-square-mile area in Miami’s southwest section attracted so many Cubans that it garnered the nickname of Little Havana. The area would become the heart of the exile community and act as a magnet to future Cuban immigrants.

Later Immigration Waves

The third wave of Cuban immigration began after the fall of 1965, when Castro announced that all Cubans with relatives living in the United States would be allowed to leave through the port of Camarioca. He invited exiles to come to Cuba by sea to collect their relatives, as commercial flights between Cuba and the United States had been discontinued in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Hundreds of Miamians accepted Castro’s offer. Within only a few weeks, about 5,000 Cubans left Cuba. Because of the chaotic nature of this exodus, Cuba and the United States negotiated a plan for a more orderly departure through a program the U.S. government dubbed the "Freedom Airlift.” These flights continued until 1973, when Castro unilaterally stopped them. By that time, 247,726 more Cubans had entered the United States. This immigrant wave comprised mostly small merchants, craftsmen, skilled and semiskilled workers, and relatives of middle-class Cubans who had immigrated during the early 1960’s.

In 1978, the Cuban government began discussions with Cuban exiles over the fates of political prisoners in Cuba. The government agreed to release 3,600 of its prisoners and to promote reunification of families by allowing Cubans living in the United States to visit their families on the island. These visits led to a fourth wave of Cuban immigration. In 1980, a chaotic flotilla of Miamians began sailing to the Cuban port of Mariel to bring their families to the United States in what became known as the "Mariel boatlift.” The sailors were forced to carry everyone whom Cuban officials put aboard their boats, including people regarded as social undesirables: prisoners who had committed nonpolitical crimes, mental patients, and homosexuals. However, contrary to popular perceptions in the United States, most of the people who came to the United States in the boatlift were not criminals. The majority were young, working-class men from the mainstream of Cuban society. A significant number of intellectuals were also among these immigrants, some of whom lacked legal immigrant status and consequently spent years in detention in the United States.

End of the Cold War

The end of the Soviet Union’s economic aid to Cuba in 1989 combined with the U.S. trade embargo to produce another wave of immigrants seeking better economic conditions. This final wave of Cuban immigration began in 1989 and continued into the early twenty-first century. These new arrivals became known as balseros because they traveled on makeshift rafts or balsas. Castro initially opposed this immigration. However, in 1994, in an apparent effort to reduce domestic political tensions or to force the United States to negotiate an immigration agreement, Castro reversed his threedecade- old policy of arresting people who tried to escape the island by sea. He announced that Cubans would be allowed to leave in small vessels and makeshift rafts if they wished to go to the United States. U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration subsequently negotiated an agreement with Cuba to halt this exodus. The accord suspended the preferential treatment that had been given to Cubans since 1959. No longer would they be treated as refugees from a communist state. Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard was ordered to send all balseros to the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The rafters faced the prospect of being detained indefinitely at Guantanamo if they would not voluntarily return home. Cuban exiles reacted angrily to this change in policy with demonstrations throughout South Florida. Meanwhile, Guantanamo’s detainee population reached 32,000 men, women, and children. Most of these undocumented immigrants were young and without resources.

In 1995, the Clinton administration allowed Guantanamo detainees to qualify for entrance into the United States. However, Cubans wishing to immigrate had to follow the same procedures as immigrants from other countries. They were no longer to receive preferential treatment and would be limited to 20,000 visas per year.With the end of the Cold War, immigrants from communist countries no longer mandated special treatment. Meanwhile, Cubans—including Elián González, who became a cause célèbre in the United States—continued to pile onto rafts in the hope of reaching Florida. Cuban exile organizations, such as Brothers to the Rescue, sent planes near or into Cuban airspace in search of rafters. In 1996, the Cuban air force shot down two of the exile planes, sparking an international crisis with the United States. Clinton retaliated by tightening the embargo on Cuba, but his administration’s policy on Cuban immigration remained unchanged.

Cuban Life in the United States

Cuban Americans have made remarkable progress in adjusting to life in the United States. The 1959 wave of immigrants, who were well above average in educational background and business skills, established an economic and cultural base that would ease the adjustment of later immigrants. However, the successes of the Cubans led to friction with African Americans, many of whom felt politically marginalized and shut out of economic advancement. This friction resulted in 1980 in a riot in the Overtown district of Miami that had a 50- percent unemployment rate among African Americans. The riot was triggered by an incident of police brutality but reflected deep anger at persistent police mistreatment and well as neglect of the black community by Miami’s predominantly Cuban American political leaders. In the aftermath of the riot, little changed despite promises to fix the underlying causes of the revolt. The Cuban immigrants and their descendants have remained a powerful political and cultural force within South Florida.

Caryn E. Neumann

Further Reading

De los Angeles Torres, Maria. In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Examines the politics of Cuban exiles during the twentieth century, including a focus on the period after the end of the Cold War.

Fernandez, Alfredo A. Adrift: The Cuban Raft People. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2000. Discusses Cuban refugees, including Elián González, who traveled on rafts to reach U.S. soil during the 1990’s.

Gonzalez-Pando, Miguel. The Cuban Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Historical examination of Cuban Americans during the twentieth century with a focus on the post- 1959 years.

Landis, Jacquelyn, ed. The Cubans. Farmington, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005. Collection of essays on early Cuban exiles, political unrest and later waves of immigration, the refugee crisis, and the accomplishments of Cuban Americans.

Ojito, Mirta. Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Contains accounts from people who participated in the 1980 exodus from Cuba.

Pedraza, Silvia. Political Disaffection in Cuba’s Revolution and Exodus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Superb historical study of the role of politics in prompting Cuban immigration.

Perez-Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban- American Way. Austin: University of Texas, 1994. Explores how tradition and interpretations of tradition have influenced the identities of Cuban Americans.

See also: Florida; Florida illegal immigration suit; Freedom Airlift; González case; History of immigration after 1891; Latin American immigrants; Little Havana; Mariel boatlift; Miami.

Read the full story

Edwidge Danticat

The leading writer of the Haitian diaspora, Danticat memorably conveys the struggles and identity crises of Haitian immigrants, the grim poverty and political oppression of their homeland, their mistreatment in the United States, and their vibrant language and popular culture.

Read the full story

Ecuadorian immigrants

Ecuadorians constitute the eighth-largest Latino group in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Read the full story

El Rescate

By providing free legal and social services to Salvadorans and other Central American immigrants, as well as refugees and immigrants from other Latin American countries living in Los Angeles, California, El Rescate has been an important force for social justice and human rights.

Read the full story

Farm and migrant workers

The supply of farm labor has become one of the most significant issues in U.S. immigration policy.

Read the full story

Freedom Airlift

The airlift of hundreds of thousands of Cuban migrants to the United States increased the size and political strength of the Cuban American community while furthering the Cold War foreign policy goals of the United States.

Read the full story

Galvan v. Press

In the context of the Cold War, the Galvan decision upheld the authority of the U.S. government to order the deportation of persons who had been members of the Communist Party, even if there was no good evidence that they had understood the party’s advocacy of violent revolution.

Read the full story

González case

González caseWhat may have been the world’s most closely watched custody battle became a cause célèbre that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, strained U.S.-Cuba relations, and had future political repercussions.

Read the full story

Guatemalan immigrants

Civil war, natural disasters, and economic hardships combined to cause Guatemalan immigration to the United States to begin a rise during the 1960’s that has continued to grow into the twenty-first century. Guatemalans have become the second-largest Central American immigrant community after Salvadorans.

Read the full story

Haitian boat people

Haitian boat peopleDefining the Haitian boat people as economic rather than political refugees allowed the United States to refuse asylum to thousands of Haitians and raised serious questions about human rights standards and treatment of refugees in the United States.

Read the full story

Haitian immigrants

Although Haitians are citizens of the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, an island nation located only seven hundred miles from the United States, they have experienced unique difficulties in finding acceptance as immigrants and have become one of the most abused groups of immigrants in modern American history.

Read the full story

Honduran immigrants

Significance: Honduran immigration into the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the 81 percent increase of Hondurans coming into the country during the first decade of the twenty-first century, was the largest of any immigrant group. Their numbers rose fromapproximately 160,000 in 2000 to 300,000 in 2008.

Until the fourth decade of the twentieth century, U.S. Census data did not count immigrants from individual Central American nations. In any case, the numbers of Hondurans immigrating to the United States before 1930 was small, and even during the decade of the 1930’s, only 679 Hondurans entered the country legally. The numbers of immigrants remained low into the 1960’s, when a significant increase began. During that decade, 15,078 Hondurans were granted legal permanent resident status in the United States. By the last year of the twentieth century, an average of more than 7,100 new immigrants per year were coming from Honduras. The 2000 U.S. Census recorded a total of 282,852 Hondurans living in the United States legally. However, these numbers do not include the large numbers of undocumented immigrants. By the year 2008, it was estimated that nearly 1 million Hondurans resided in the United States. Of that number, as many as 70 percent were estimated to be in the country illegally.

Many of the most recent Honduran immigrants to enter the United States legally have been granted temporary protected status because of the devastation in Central America left by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. That status was extended several times, including an extension to July of 2010; it grants work authorization and protection from deportation but does not assure permanent residency. As many as 80,000 Hondurans came to the United States under temporary protected status.

Profile of Honduran immigrants

Country of origin Honduras
Primary language Spanish
Primary regions of U.S. settlement California, Washington, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Nebraska
Earliest significant arrivals Early twentieth century
Peak immigration period 1980’s-2008
Twenty-first century legal residents* 52,534 (6,567 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Push-Pull Factors

A combination of economic hardship and natural disasters has led to the increase in Honduran immigration. Most Hondurans are small-scale farmers with average income of only $1,700 per year. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was estimated that 59 percent of all Hondurans were living below the poverty line. Approximately 20 percent of adults were illiterate, and 25 percent of the children were chronically malnourished.

Immigration from Honduras, 1930-2008

Immigration from Honduras, 1930-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.

The 1998 arrival of Hurricane Mitch in Central America proved to be one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit Honduras. The hurricane caused great additional economic hardships in what was already a desperately poor country. Entire fruit fields were destroyed, resulting in the departure of many multinational fruit companies that were important employers. Record amounts of rainfall caused mudslides that wiped out entire villages. Back roads and bridges were destroyed, and as much as 70 to 80 percent of the national transportation infrastructure was ruined. Seven thousand people died, and more than 20 percent of the entire population were left homeless after the hurricane. During the months directly following the hurricane, the U.S. Border Patrol reported a 61 percent increase in captures of Hondurans trying to cross the border into the United States.

Hondurans in the United States

Honduran transnational communities strive to maintain ties with their hometowns while creating new homes for themselves in the United States. The flow of migrants has a direct impact on Honduran communities in both countries, creating an exchange of cultures that changes both. Honduran residents of the United States account for 40 percent of all tourism revenue in Honduras.

Hurricane Mitch in Central America, 1998

Hurricane Mitch in Central America, 1998

Many Hondurans work in the United States in order to send remittances to relatives still in Honduras. In 2007, the Honduran foreign ministry reported that $2.8 billion in remittances were sent to Honduras by workers in the United States. Remittances directly affect the receiving families, lifting many of them out of poverty. They also add to the economic disparity in communities, creating a clear distinction between those who receive them and those who do not. However, some observers feel that remittances can create a dependence on charity that does little to improve the economic development of Honduras.

Hondurans who try to travel to the United States to find work face difficult and dangerous journeys that require passing through Guatemala and Mexico. Peril and discomforts include rape, exposure to severe heat in desert areas, long separations from family, robbery, accidents, and even murder. Engaging professional guides known as "coyotes” can cost as much as five thousand dollars. It has been estimated that only 25 percent of the approximately 80,000 Hondurans who have tried to reach the United States each year since 1998 have succeeded.

Many of the Hondurans who have immigrated to the United States have flourished. However, a less positive result of Honduran immigration has been the development of youth gangs. During the 1990’s, the U.S. government targeted undocumented residents in the penal system for deportation. Many of these former criminals were also gang members who recommenced their gangster lifestyle upon return to Honduras, creating transnational ties with gangs in the United States.

Elizabeth Ellen Cramer

Further Reading

  • Duffy, Maureen P., and Scott Edward Gillig. Teen Gangs: A Global View. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Discusses teen gang activity in fourteen countries, including Honduras. 
  • González, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking Press, 2000. General history of Latin American immigration into the United States, including that from Central and South American nations. 
  • Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey. New York: Random House, 2006. True story about an elevenyear- old Honduran boy’s epic journey to the United States to find the mother who went north to find work when he was only five years old. Based on a prize-winning series of stories first published in the Los Angeles Times, for which Nazario was a feature writer. 
  • Salgado, Sebastião, and Lélia Wanick Salgoda. Migrations: Humanity in Transition. New York: Aperture, 2001. Photojournalistic work depicting displaced populations of the world, including Hondurans in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. 
  • Schmalzbauer, Leah. Striving and Surviving: A Daily Life Analysis of Honduran Transnational Families. New York: Routledge, 2005. Focusing on Honduran families in the United States, this volume investigates the role of the family in transnational communities. 

See also: El Rescate; Farm and migrant workers; Guatemalan immigrants; History of immigration after 1891; Illegal immigration; Latin American immigrants; Louisiana; Push-pull factors; Salvadoran immigrants; Sanctuary movement; Smuggling of immigrants.

Read the full story

Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Lopez-Mendoza

The Lopez-Mendoza decision upheld very minimal application of Fourth Amendment rights to deportation proceedings, thereby allowing immigration officials to use some improperly acquired evidence when deciding whether noncitizens should be expelled from the country.

Read the full story