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Miami’s biggest new wave of immigrants looks a lot like its previous ones

Cubans continue to lead as Miami’s top immigrants

The Cuban-born population in Miami-Dade has climbed by 120,000 from 2010 to 2017. As a result, 1 in 4 Miami-Dade resident was born in Cuba, and in Hialeah, that's 86 percent of its population.
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The Cuban-born population in Miami-Dade has climbed by 120,000 from 2010 to 2017. As a result, 1 in 4 Miami-Dade resident was born in Cuba, and in Hialeah, that's 86 percent of its population.

Joel Martinez, 32, came to Miami from Cuba for the same reason Cubans have been coming to the Magic City for the past six decades: a better life.

“In Cuba, every young person, almost every teenager, wants to go to another country, because they don’t see a future,” said Martinez, who studied economics at the University of Havana. “You cannot make a five or 10 year plan for yourself, so you try to go to another country. And the U.S. always comes first. It’s the country of opportunities.”

What makes Martinez’s story noteworthy is that it remains so familiar.

Meet the new South Florida immigrants: They look a lot like the old South Florida immigrants.

“I wouldn’t call it any kind of [new] Cuban wave,“ said Juan Gomez, director of the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at Florida International University.

Rather, the waves never stopped.

Miami has never been more diverse, with more foreign-born residents than ever. Over the years, the mix has evolved as some traditionally booming populations plateau, while others grow.

But it is Cubans who continue to comprise the largest cohort of new arrivals to Miami-Dade, according to Census data.

From 2010 to 2017, the county’s Cuban-born population climbed nearly 21 percent, or by about 120,000 — a greater numeric increase in Dade than for any other country of origin during the period. Today, the county is home to nearly 700,000 Cuban-born residents. As of 2017, this group comprised 25.7 percent of the county’s total population, compared with 23.5 percent in 2010. Cuban-born residents comprised 48.5 percent of Miami-Dade’s foreign-born population, up from 46 percent in 2010.

And according to longtime Miami-based immigration lawyer Wilfredo Allen, the suspension of the old “wet foot, dry foot” policy has barely put a dent in their numbers.

“Miami is still the No. 1 destination,” he said. While Cubans have branched out to states like Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska — as well as more traditional, secondary landing spots like Tampa and New York — “overall, Miami is the main ‘H.Q.,’ ” he said.

Air and land

In 1970, about 90 percent of all Hispanics in the county were of Cuban origin. By 1990, the figure had dropped to 58 percent. In the decade that started in 2000, the Cuban-born population climbed just 15 percent.

In other words, the 20 percent increase in the most recent decade indicates a Cuban renaissance.

But this time is different, in a number of respects.

In the “wet foot, dry foot” era, Cubans commonly arrived by boat. Today, Cubans travel by air and, increasingly, land. The latter group now mostly arrives at the Mexico/U.S. border where Ciudad Juarez meets El Paso, or where Nuevo Laredo meets Laredo, Texas, hoping to obtain a visa, parole, or bond, said Allen, the lawyer. Many get deported back to Cuba.

But among those who successfully enter the U.S., a majority will end up in Miami, he said.

“They just feel more comfortable here; they can adjust more easily,” Allen said. “Although Cubans are landing nationwide, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are more likely to approve you if you’re in Miami.” For example, he said, clients in other cities have been denied legal status, reapplied in Miami, and gotten approved.

Guyana, just east of Venezuela, became another major crossing point after the U.S. government transferred the processing of U.S. immigrant visas for Cubans from Colombia in 2018. From the capital of Georgetown, Cuban immigrants can fly directly to Miami.

Let’s say I’m already in the U.S., but I have a daughter or wife [in Cuba] and want to petition for her,” he said. “That’s what’s happening in Guyana,” FIU’s Gomez said.

For Martinez, the economics major, it was even easier: His wife’s family, already living in Miami, petitioned for the couple to come, and he took a direct flight from Havana to Miami International Airport.

“I have a happier story,” he said.

One key factor that has allowed the wave to continue: Though the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which granted Cubans automatic asylum as soon as they landed on U.S. shores, ended in 2017, the Cuban Adjustment Act remains on the books. The act allows Cubans living in the U.S. to apply for lawful residency, also known as Green Cards, if they can prove they’ve lived in the U.S. one year plus one day.

In the past, Allen says, many Cubans headed directly from their flights at Miami International to the airport’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to file for asylum.

Now, Cubans are more likely to enter the U.S. on visas, wait out the year-and-a-day period, and apply for residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, which fast-tracks Cubans for permanent residency status. Many Cubans hold Spanish, Italian and even German passports, which can be used to gain initial entry into the U.S. Cubans already living in the U.S. are also able to petition family members to legally enter the U.S., as was the case with Martinez.

While some Cubans must illegally overstay their visas, Allen says, the act allows more legal options for Cubans to gain residency — like the family petition program — than for individuals coming from many other countries.

Changing mix

The latest wave of Cubans has arguably been overshadowed by the surge of Venezuelans arriving in Miami-Dade. Among countries of origin that saw more than 10,000 arrivals to Miami-Dade this decade, Venezuela had the fastest growth. Between 2010 and 2017, Miami-Dade’s Venezuela-born population increased 57 percent, from approximately 39,000 to approximately 61,000.

Still, fewer Venezuelans call Miami home compared with residents who came from Colombia, Haiti or Nicaragua.

But the balance is shifting.

As the economic situation in Venezuela has deteriorated, Colombia’s has stabilized. With the signing of a cease-fire agreement with FARC rebels, as well as a growing middle class and even a tech sector, the flow of immigrants from Colombia into Miami-Dade barely climbed more than 1 percent this decade, and as recently as 2015 was showing a decline.

In 2010, Colombians comprised approximately 7 percent of the county’s foreign-born population; in 2017, that figure had fallen to 6.6 percent.

Haitians continue to arrive, too. But more are heading north — into Broward and Palm Beach counties — than in the past. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Haitians in Broward surged 17 percent, to more than 80,000 — within striking distance of Miami-Dade’s 83,000. Their growth was even more impressive in Palm Beach: 33 percent, to nearly 60,000. Though the number of Haitian-born Dade residents climbed 14 percent between 2010 and 2017, their share of the county’s foreign-born population did not budge, flattening out at 5.8 percent.

Among Central American-born Dade residents, net growth between 2010 and 2017 was statistically insignificant. The county’s Nicaraguan population even saw a net decline. As of 2017, Central Americans comprised 13.8 percent of Miami-Dade’s foreign-born population, compared with 16 percent in 2010.

Besides Venezuela, the fastest-growing countries of origin for new Miami-Dade residents were as follows: Dominican Republic, which grew 20 percent to more than 41,000; Spain, which grew 29 percent to more than 10,000; Brazil, which grew 24 percent to nearly 15,000; and Southeast Asian countries, which collectively grew nearly 20 percent to more than 11,000.

‘Big Havana’

Today, approximately one in two foreign-born Dade countians have come from Cuba. But if they mostly came for the same reason as their forefathers, their settlement habits look much different.

Serafin Blanco, owner of Ñooo Que Barato, a discount store and unofficial Hialeah landmark, puts it succinctly.

“Forget about Little Havana,” he says. “Now we have Big Havana. It’s called Hialeah.”

Cubans moving to Hialeah is not new. What is: Their numbers there show no sign of slowing down. From 2010 to 2017, the city’s Cuban-born population increased about 14 percent, or about 17,500, to approximately 145,000. Today, the foreign-born population of Hialeah is among the highest for any city in the U.S.: more than 74 percent. Among this foreign-born group in Hialeah, approximately 82 percent are Cuban.

While Hialeah has become South Florida’s densest Cuban community, another is seeing higher growth. Census data show the Cuban-born population in West Kendall nearly doubled between 2010 and 2017, from 8,569 to 15,297.

Besides basic geography, Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, says there is no one defining feature of the current generation of immigrants.

“It’s a pretty wide cross section, really people from all walks of life,” he said. If the founding wave of Cubans were able to quickly set up professional businesses, like banks, on their own, the current generation is just as likely to be behind the wheel of an Uber, or cleaning an office.

“You have a more representative migrant wave,” he said. “Whereas there was a more selective wave during early years of revolution.”

Despite his advanced degree, Martinez, the economics major, had to take the first job he could get when he arrived: working security at a truck yard in Hialeah. A series of other odd jobs followed: a porter, then an express lube supervisor at a Toyota dealership, then a cashier. Finally, he found a job in accounting, which turned into his current job as an accounts supervisor at a local hotel firm. He says he makes around $40,000 a year.

He wouldn’t have landed anywhere else than Miami.

“Cubans feel like they made [Miami] a big city,” he said. “For many Cubans here, it feels like you are a fish in water. The weather, the sky, even how the sun looks is similar.”

In fact, he said, most of his graduating economics class has ended up in Miami.

“Sometimes it feels like you know more people here than in Cuba,” he said.

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