Mariel Boatlift 40 Years Later: Crimmigration in the Era of Reagan’s Cold War

Solicited by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians Collaborative Committee. Endorsed by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS)

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 2:15 PM - 2:45 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Immigration and Internal Migration; International Relations


In April 1980, a bus smashed into the grounds of Peruvian embassy in Havana, Cuba, sparking one of the largest boatlifts in history.  By the time it was over more than 125,000 refugees left Cuba for the United States, where they were detained on military bases and released on parole in the United States.  A few hundred who the US believed were mentally ill or had criminal backgrounds were not released and were sent to prisons across the country.  By 1987, 2400 Mariel refugees who had been paroled into the US but had committed crimes were ordered to be deported.  Since Cuba would not accept the return of these refugees, they remained imprisoned indefinitely. In November 1987, over 2000 Cuban detainees in Oakdale, Louisiana and Atlanta, Georgia, overtook the prisons and seized more than 100 hostages.  In what would become the longest-lasting prison takeover in US history, the Cuban detainees demanded due process reviews of their cases before they were deported. This panel will focus on how crimmigration, the intersection of immigration and criminal law, was developed as a response to the Mariel refugees.  In addition to examining two prison uprisings, the panel will explore criminal justice in Miami as well as the Cold War context in which the Mariel refugee boatlift happened.  Looking back on this episode after 40 years, it is clear that this episode sparked the beginning of crimmigration in the US.

Papers Presented

Mariel Cuban Refugees and the Longest Prison Takeover in the United States

The longest lasting prison takeover in the United States began in November 1987 with Cuban detainees in an Oakdale, Louisiana, detention center and quickly spread to that Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. In 1980 over 120,000 Cubans fled the island in a boatlift that would dramatically alter U.S. immigration detention practices. Most of the detainees were processed within a few months and paroled into the United States where they could apply for legal residency. However, a smaller group of 1300 were found to be excludable because of their criminal records in Cuba or because they were judged mentally unstable. By 1987, there were several thousand Cubans still languishing in federal prisons with indefinite sentences because they were deemed too dangerous to be allowed into the United States, or had committed crimes while in the United States, and, they could not be deported back to Cuba. In November 1987, after hearing the news that Fidel Castro had agreed to accept all of the Cuban detainees back, over 1,000 of them seized the detention center at Oakdale, took several dozen guards and prison employees as hostages, burned buildings, and demanded not be deported to Cuba. A few days later, over 1,000 Cuban detainees seized the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, taking nearly 100 hostages. The Cuban detainees complained that their indefinite detention was inhumane, and they demanded individual hearings to review their cases. After two weeks, both the Oakdale and Atlanta occupations ended after Attorney General Edwin Meese agreed to a moratorium on deportations and individual reviews of their cases. Although the detainees had burned several buildings, resulting in millions of dollars in property damage, only one Cuban detainee was killed (by a sharpshooter in Atlanta), and all of the hostages were released unharmed. In the end, the longest prison uprising was also the most non-violent one. These uprisings were the birth of the modern-day conflation of the criminal and the illegal alien, and they led to the massive expansion of the infrastructure of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be able to lock up tens of thousands of immigrants.

Presented By
Elliott Young, Lewis & Clark College

Another CIA Operation: The Mariel Boatlift, the U.S. Invasion of Grenada, and Reagan’s Schemes of Deporting Mariel Cubans

The Mariel boatlift of 1980 had a tremendous impact on U.S. thinking about Cuba in subsequent decades. Even in the middle of the Cold War, Washington no longer welcomed all Cuban emigrants as before. The U.S. government identified migration control as the most important national security goal across the Florida Straits, and even the most hawkish anticommunist U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, reached out to the Cuban government for migration talks, albeit reluctantly. But why did Reagan choose to talk with his nemesis, Fidel Castro? What alternative plans did the U.S. president pursue beforehand? Based on recently declassified records, this paper unveiled the years-long trajectory of Reagan’s scheme of deporting Mariel “excludables,” whom he found ineligible for settlement in U.S. society. By unveiling numerous secret plots concocted by the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Joint Chief of Staff, the paper explores Reagan’s obsession with exclusion, the close relationship between military power and migration control, and the reasons why migration control has become the most important “national security” issue in contemporary U.S. politics and foreign relations.

Presented By
Hideaki Kami, University of Tokyo

Making Migrants “Criminal” in Miami: The Mariel Boatlift and Immigration Enforcement in the 1980s

In 1980 nearly 125,000 Cubans sailed to Florida in a mass migration known as the Mariel boatlift. They arrived amid reports that Cuban officials had released many of them from prisons and forced them onto boats bound for the United States. A significant minority of these Cubans had spent time in prison, mostly for petty offenses, but sensationalist press accounts distorted their stories and helped increase apprehension about the new arrivals. In south Florida such fears converged with anxieties over rising crime rates. The overcrowded Dade County Jail in Miami became a specific site of contention. Although the jail had been under a court order to reduce its population for years, Miamians blamed the newcomers. They expressed particular alarm at the alleged inability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to identify migrants in the jail and take them into custody. Elected officials relayed these concerns to Congress and insisted that the federal government must take responsibility for the people they called “criminal aliens.” Over the next decade, federal agencies and local police departments established new partnerships that addressed many of the demands issued in Miami after the Mariel boatlift. Scholars generally attribute this integrated regime of immigration and criminal law enforcement to federal initiatives that began in the mid-1980s. This paper suggests that this transformation owed much to local dynamics that emerged earlier—in Miami and other key cities—and helped drive a bipartisan consensus that increasingly framed immigration policy as a punitive form of “crime control.”

Presented By
Alexander M. Stephens, University of Michigan

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Elliott Young, Lewis & Clark College

Commentator: The Audience

Presenter: Hideaki Kami, University of Tokyo

Presenter: Alexander M. Stephens, University of Michigan