Caribbean Migration
Overview
The Colonial Period to 1900
Leaving the Caribbean
The Central American Route
Coming to the United States
Shutting the Door
New Waves
Reception and Adaptation
Change and Continuity
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<  Shutting the Door Reception and Adaptation  >

The level of Caribbean immigration picked up after the United States entered World War II in 1941. Almost 50,000 Caribbeans (black and white) settled in the country between 1941 and 1950. They took advantage of the rapidly expanding war economy and postwar economic growth. Beginning in 1943, thousands of migrant workers were brought from the region to work in American agriculture and thus help the war effort. Florida's sugar plantations were their primary destinations, but they were soon dispersed to other states and sectors of the American economy.

By war's end, over 40,000 workers from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, and Dominica were working in the United States. They labored in nearly 1,500 localities in thirty-six states. Some 16,000 worked in industrial occupations. For some, especially those in Florida, conditions were intolerable. Many ignored the no strike clause in their contracts and engaged in other forms of open resistance, sometimes with success. Others broke their contracts and fled from their assigned jobs.

Historical Functions of Caribbean-American Benevolent/Progressive AssociationsAfro-Americans in New York Life and History (July 1988)Historical Functions of Caribbean-American Benevolent/Progressive Associations from Afro-Americans in New York Life and History (July 1988) by Bert J. Thomas

Jamaican tobacco workers in Connecticut took flight to New York and Boston rather than return to their native land after their contracts expired in 1950. Others were able to transform their status from migrant worker to immigrant and remain legally in the country. Many, however, returned to the Caribbean and then made their way back to this country as bona fide immigrants, rather than contract laborers.

Though originally intended to alleviate the alleged wartime labor shortage in Florida agriculture, the Caribbean program continues to this day. In 1989 some 14,000 Caribbean migrant workers were employed on American farms.

Peasants in Reserve: Temporary West Indian Labor in the U.S. Farm Labor MarketInternational Migration Review, vol. 20, no. 4 (Fall 1986)Peasants in Reserve: Temporary West Indian Labor in the U.S. Farm Labor Market from International Migration Review, vol. 20, no. 4 (Fall 1986) by David Griffith

Between 1917 and 1944, Puerto Ricans settled primarily in a few New York neighborhoods, such as East Harlem, Chelsea, the Lower East Side and West Side of Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By the 1930s, the immigrants strongly concentrated in East Harlem, especially between 97th and 116th Streets, which became known as Spanish Harlem or simply El Barrio. Many Puerto Rican communities developed alongside African-American neighborhoods such as Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. These early settlements were relatively small and compact; were well integrated with other Spanish-speaking immigrants, especially Cubans and Spaniards; and were not considered a "social problem." In the 1940s, two-thirds of the Puerto Rican immigrants were classified as white and one-third as black or mulatto. From New York, Puerto Ricans spread out to New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, especially those who worked in seasonal agriculture. About 90,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the continental United States between 1898 and 1944.

The third stage of Puerto Rican migration, often dubbed the Great Migration, took place between 1945 and 1964. The island's agricultural economy, particularly in sugar, coffee, and tobacco, declined sharply, especially after1930. After World War II, the island's industrialization program, Operation Bootstrap, displaced many rural workers to urban areas. Especially hard-hit was the central mountainous region, which experienced large population losses. Lack of sufficient jobs on the island, combined with a growing demand for cheap labor in the mainland, produced the first massive exodus in the 1940s and 1950s. More than half a million islanders moved abroad. About 21,000 traveled to the mainland every year as migrant farm laborers. Several Puerto Rican communities, such as those in Camden, New Jersey; Springfield, Massachusetts; or Hartford, Connecticut, began as small clusters of former contract workers.

Postwar Puerto Rican communities expanded swiftly across the Harlem River into the South Bronx and into parts of Brooklyn, such as Williamsburg and Sunset Park. Most of the immigrants settled in dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods abandoned by other ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews. Puerto Ricans became the second largest minority in New York City, after African Americans; the second largest Hispanic population in the United States, after Mexicans; and one of the most disadvantaged groups, together with American Indians and Dominicans. Other northeastern cities such as Philadelphia, Newark, and Hartford also attracted many Puerto Ricans during this period. A secondary concentration developed in the Midwest during the 1950s, particularly Chicago, Cleveland, and smaller industrial cities such as Lorain, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana. Most of the immigrants were young, male, unskilled rural workers, with little education and knowledge of the English language, and were largely incorporated into the lower rungs of the U.S. economy, particularly in light manufacturing, domestic service, and seasonal agriculture. Because many had African or mixed ancestry, Puerto Ricans were often treated as African Americans and excluded from jobs, housing, and schools.

The postwar flow of Caribbean immigrants suffered a major setback with the passage in 1952 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act. While allowing drastically reduced numbers of Caribbean farm workers to enter the U.S., the bill closed the door to virtually every other would-be black immigrant.

The law had the desired effect of retarding the rate of Caribbean immigration to the U.S. Thousands still came, but they were overwhelmingly the close relatives of people already living in this country, rather than new immigrants as such. The migration stream was now diverted to Britain, which was to receive approximately 300,000 Caribbean immigrants between 1948 and 1966.

Recent Migration from West Africa and the West Indies to the United KingdomPopulation Studies, vol. 7, no. 1 (July 1953)Recent Migration from West Africa and the West Indies to the United Kingdom from Population Studies, vol. 7, no. 1 (July 1953) by Michael Banton

In 1964 Lyndon Johnson was elected president in a landslide; the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. As a senator from Texas, Johnson had voted for the McCarran-Walter Act, but as president he made good on his campaign promise to continue John F. Kennedy's efforts to reform the immigration laws. Johnson linked the civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a new and more equitable immigration policy.

The new liberalized immigration law, commonly known as the Hart-Celler Act, was passed in September 1965 and went into full effect on July 1, 1968. It launched a new wave of immigration from the Caribbean. For those who sought better opportunities abroad, it was especially welcomed, because beginning in 1962, Great Britain began to systematically block the entry of Caribbean immigrants. They now headed north to America. From 123,000 in the 1950s, the number of Caribbean immigrants grew to 470,000 for the 1960s, including the massive flow of those leaving Cuba.

For Jamaica alone, the number jumped more than eightfold over the period, from less than 9,000 to just under 75,000. Between 1971 and 1980, the Jamaican figure, at almost 140,000, was almost double that of the previous decade. And between 1981 and 1990 a further 208,000 people made their way to the United States among the 872,000 from the Caribbean as a whole.

The Mighty Gabby     , Chapter 10Double Passage: The Lives of Caribbean Migrants Abroad and Back HomeThe Mighty Gabby , Chapter 10 from Double Passage: The Lives of Caribbean Migrants Abroad and Back Home by George Gmelch
Migration Processes     , Chapter IVSalt-water Trinnies: Afro-Trinidadian Immigrant Networks and Non-assimilation in Los AngelesMigration Processes , Chapter IV from Salt-water Trinnies: Afro-Trinidadian Immigrant Networks and Non-assimilation in Los Angeles by Christine G. T. Ho

A growing "revolving-door migration" has characterized the fourth period of Puerto-Rican immigration between 1965 and the present. For the first time since the 1930s, more people went back to the island than left for the United States during several years in the 1970s. Net migration to the mainland reached a historic low since the beginning of the century. Among the main causes of return migration were deteriorated living conditions and employment opportunities in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, particularly in manufacturing. As a result, the movement of first- and second-generation Puerto Ricans to the island has taken massive proportions. The 2000 census found that more than 6 percent of Puerto Rico's population was born in the United States and that more than 3 percent had lived there in 1995. The presence of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who were raised abroad and speak English as their first language has raised important issues about the island's cultural identity, notably the role of the Spanish language as a symbol of that identity.

Basic Demographic Characteristics of the Hispanic Caribbean Population in the United States, 2000 (table)Basic Demographic Characteristics of the Hispanic Caribbean Population in the United States, 2000 (table) by Jorge Duany

A large Cuban migration, from Mariel harbor to Key West, Florida, took place between April 21 and September 26, 1980. The Mariel boatlift partly resulted from the visits of more than 100,000 exiles to Cuba in 1979, which renewed social contacts with relatives and familiarized them with economic opportunities in the United States. The immediate cause of the exodus was the takeover of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana by more than 10,800 Cubans who wanted to migrate. The Cuban government opened the port of Mariel, near Havana, for those who could be picked up by relatives living abroad. Thus began what became known as the "Freedom Flotilla" in the United States. When the exiles arrived in Mariel aboard private boats and ships, Cuban officials forced them to take unrelated persons, some of whom had been inmates at prisons or mental hospitals. The boatlift ended abruptly when Castro closed the harbor for further emigration.

More than 125,000 Cubans arrived in Key West during the exodus. Most of the marielitos (as they were pejoratively labeled) were young, single males; and had a working-class background and an elementary education. Approximately 22 percent classified themselves as black or "other" (most likely mulattos), compared to only 9 percent of the Cubans who arrived between 1960 and 1964. Contrary to media reports, less than 2 percent of the marielitos were serious criminals, although about 19 percent had been in jail for various reasons, including political dissidence. Thus, the socioeconomic profile of the Mariel exodus differed significantly from that of previous refugee waves, especially during the early 1960s. The 1980 boatlift deepened the rifts between "old" and "new" Cubans in Miami, where most of the latter settled.

The first stage of large-scale Dominican migration began shortly after Trujillo's assassination in 1961, especially following the coup d'état against constitutional President Juan Bosch (1963) and the civil war and U.S. military occupation of Santo Domingo (1965). These political events unleashed complex socioeconomic forces leading hundreds of thousands of Dominicans to move abroad over the past four decades. As a result, Dominican migration to the United States multiplied tenfold between the 1950s and 1960s. The outflow continued rising in the 1970s and 1980s, reaching unprecedented levels in the 1990s. As the exodus grew, it became more representative of the sending population, including blacks and mulattos, as well as members of the lower classes. By 1990, more than 25 percent of the Dominicans in New York City said they were black, while 24 percent considered themselves white and 50 percent described their race as "other."


During the 1980s, the economic crisis in the Dominican Republic increased the number of migrants of various social classes. Growing unemployment and underemployment; the rising cost of living; a chaotic transportation system; and the near-collapse in the provision of basic public services, such as electricity, running water, housing, health, and education were powerful incentives to move abroad. On one hand, one out of four migrants held relatively skilled and well-paid jobs in the Dominican Republic, for example as professionals, technicians, managers, and administrators. Others worked in middle-level positions as sales and administrative support personnel. On the other hand, more than half was employed in low-skilled and low-paying occupations, particularly as operators, fabricators, laborers, and service workers. The small proportion of agricultural workers indicates that most were not rural dwellers. Thus, contemporary Dominican migration draws primarily on the urban working classes, not the middle class or the peasantry.

When asked why they left their country, many Dominicans reply, "searching for a better life. The basic economic incentive for the large-scale displacement of Dominicans to the United States is the wide gulf in the wage levels of the two countries - especially since the early 1980s, with the constant devaluation of the Dominican peso vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar.

Given U.S. restrictions on immigrant visas, many were forced to travel illegally on unseaworthy boats, known as yolas, across the Mona Channel to Puerto Rico. Between 1982 and 2004, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 24,413 undocumented Dominicans at sea.

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