"We Are Advocating the Return of the Criminal and Mentally Ill": Cuban Americans, Detainee Rights, and the Politics of Respectability in Reagan's America

Friday, January 4, 2019: 4:10 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Mauricio Castro, Duke University
The 1980 Mariel Boatlift saw the arrival of nearly 125,000 Cuban migrants to U.S. shores in the span of a few months. Unlike previous waves of Cuban refugees, the group that came to be known as the marielitos was greeted with negative portrayals in the national press and an anemic aid response from federal authorities. At the center of the controversy over the marielitos was that some of these migrants were mentally ill, had developmental and intellectual disabilities, and had committed crimes prior to their arrival. Additionally, a crime wave that followed the arrival of tens of thousands of desperate refugees on the streets of Miami led to hundreds of prosecutions. This paper traces the debates over the fate of the marielitos, especially those who were perceived as criminal, deviant, or sick, as thousands were held in indefinite federal detention.

I argue that the Mariel Boatlift – and its accompanying anti-immigrant backlash – helped reframe debates about immigration within the politics of respectability. Miami was ground zero for the growth of the “English Only” campaign in the United States, a movement fueled by the trauma of Mariel. As Cuban Americans aided vulnerable migrants, they also aimed to protect their reputation and the economic and political gains they had made in South Florida. To do so they turned especially to the language of respectability. Bilingualism in Dade County, the election of Cuban Americans to office, and the rise of a national political lobby had to be defended by an exemplary people, not by criminal outcasts. The ensuing debates propelled marielitos into competing claims about immigration, anticommunism, and the rights to equal treatment under the law of gay, disabled, and law-breakers. The battles over the Mariel detainees ultimately lay bare the intersection of respectability, marginality, and politics in the Reagan era.