Rafters, Border-crossers and Spanish citizens: Faces of Cuban Immigrants in United States

More than 6,500 Cubans arrived in the United States crossing the border of Mexico since October 1st, 2014, in a context where uncertainty about the privileges granted by the Cuban Adjustment Act deepens.

Others entered using airports with passports of a third country and applied for political asylum.

Between 2005 and 2014 more than 15,000 people arrived on rafts and managed to touch land. In the same period, 17,503 Cubans were intercepted in the Straits of Florida and repatriated to the island, says Cafe Fuerte.

Cuban Immigration in US (2005-2014)

Cuban Immigration in US (2005-2014)

The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) is a law approved by the Congress on 1966 that allows Cuban immigrants to stay legally in the United States after physically being in the country for one year and one day. Immigrants from other countries need to have a sponsor which could be a family member or an employer to apply to come to the United States legally.

Statistics provided to the website Café Fuerte by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show an alarming increase in the number of Cubans immigrants, specifically after the Cuban immigration reform approved in 2013 eliminated the “exit permit”. This was an expensive mechanism that that previously controlled the citizens’ right to travel out of the island.

After President Obama announced a change in the relationship with Cuba on December, 17th, 2014, many people on the island grew “worried that America’s long-standing immigration benefits for Cubans are now in jeopardy,” says the Washington Post.

When the border is the sea

Rafters (Photo courtesy of the Public Affairs Office, 7th Coast Guard District, Miami, Florida)

Rafters (Photo courtesy of the Public Affairs Office, 7th Coast Guard District, Miami, Florida)

“Between 1959 and 1994, in defiance of the law, more than 63.000 citizens left Cuba by sea in small groups and reached the United States alive,” says the website Balseros, a digital archive to explore the experiences of Cubans who left the country in small boats, homemade rafts and other unusual crafts. At least 16.000 additional rafters did not survive the crossing.

“My name is Inés Brooks,” says someone who claims to be from Camagüey, Cuba, in the website Cuban Rafters. During the last years, this website has been publishing life stories from people who came to United States during the crisis of 1994.

We built the floor of the raft with wood and put large gas tanks and high rebar to protect ourselves. Although we move slow at sea, we did not have to paddle. We arrived to Guantánamo on September 3rd, 1994. I was there until January 31st, 1995. I didn’t work at the base, but I do know a lot of people who worked in the hospital, while others worked in warehouses or distributing food.

The number of people leaving Cuba in rafts declined since the last decade, specially compared to the crisis of 1994. Many of these rafters are intercepted at sea and returned to Cuba by the Coast Guard. However, in December, 2014, “the Coast Guard intercepted 481 Cubans in rickety boats and rafts, a 117 percent increase from December 2013,” said the Washington Post.

God bless Spain

In the fiscal year 2013, 9.700 Cubans arrived at Miami International Airport (MIA) with Spanish or other European nationality passports and qualified as refugees under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), says Café Fuerte. More than 180.000 Cubans have become Spanish citizens under the Historic Memory Law (also known as the Grandchildren Law), which came into effect in December of 2007.

The Historical Memory Law recognizes the right to Spanish nationality to persons whose father or mother was originally Spanish and grandchildren of those who lost or had to renounce to their Spanish nationality as a result of exile.

“The number of Cubans holding a Spanish passport tripled between 2009 and 2011, when it hit 108,000. Many of those Cubans fly to Mexico or the US on their Spanish passports, then present their Cuban passports to US officials,” says The Guardian.

But some of them are living in the United States with Spanish passports, as it is the case of Daniel Hernandez, who never applied for the Cuban Adjustment Law.


Mexico: crossing the border

Osvaldo Perez is the director of the Score At The Top’s Wellington school. Conveniently located on Southshore Boulevard in the heart of Wellington, Florida. Perez has managed this learning center for years, which sole purpose is to serve students from Wellington and equestrians from across the world. The staff includes over twenty professional teachers and tutors that provide SAT/ACT test prep, college and school guidance, and private schooling.

Osvaldo Perez

Osvaldo Perez

People calls him just “Offi.” When someone dare to call him Osvaldo, he answers: “That’s my father”. This can be read in the school website, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. “I came to the US through Mexico,” says Perez. “I got a visa to participate in a religious event (…) then we flew to Ciudad Juárez where the immigration authorities detained us for two days and forced us to come back to Mexico City. At that point, they gave us three days to leave Mexico either back to Cuba or any other country.”

What did Osvaldo do? You can listen to his story here


From Canada to Mexico with Love

In recent years, many highly skilled Cuban professionals in Cuba have left the country. After the Cuban migratory reform was approved, some of them apply for fellowships. The main international destinations are Mexico, Canada, and Brazil, among others. The fellows receive good stipends compared with the average salary in Cuba. And, it is also a safer and more expedite way to come to United States.

Rolando Marin and Thais Pineda

Rolando Marin and Thais Pineda

“A month ago, my wife and I came to United States”, says young programmer Rolando Marin.

I applied for a fellowship in Mexico and she applied for another one in Canada (…) She spent like 50 minutes at the border of Canada. But my history was more difficult. I took a flight from Mexico City to Chihuahua City and after that I went to Ciudad Juarez. I spent almost six hours at the border point.

You can listen to the rest of the story here


Even in a context of political détente with the United States, the causes behind the Cuban migration have not disappeared. Low wages, lack of profesional opportunities for young people, difficulties with housing, public transportation, and food shortages are among the reasons mentioned by Cuban immigrants. On the other hand, the United States has been perceived historically as a prosperous country where you can get what you want if you work hard enough. This is, of course, another misrepresentation of a more complex reality.

4 thoughts on “Rafters, Border-crossers and Spanish citizens: Faces of Cuban Immigrants in United States

  1. Elaine, this is wonderful – I love the use of audio stories here and you did a great job of explaining the context for these personal narratives.

  2. Can’t wait to hear you talk about putting this story together – were you able to do these interviews within four hours?! It’s a great example of integrating audio storytelling into a web story. It’s also an interesting example of what you can do when you know a subject well and don’t need to do tons of background research.

    • I posted a comment on Facebook saying something like this
      – Dear friends living in the US. Would you please be kind enough to send me your story on how did you arrived to US? I just have four hours.
      (It was a longer message).
      And my friends sent me all those stories, some of them used video and some of them used audio. And all of them used their time at job to do it 🙂
      I’m pretty impressed by the way Facebook can work when you’re recollecting life stories. I’ve never tried that before.

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