Rick Sanchez: Cubans, An Immigrant Success Model

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If you talk to workers at the Miami International Airport or local immigration lawyers they will tell you there is a recurring trend. The number of Cuban immigrants arriving from third countries and requesting asylum is on the rise. They do so, in large part, because they can. You see, unlike most other immigrants, Cubans are all but guaranteed residency in the U.S. once they arrive. It’s based on the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act that allows them to remain here once on U.S. soil.

Cuban exiles were able to pool their resources by combining their skill sets and professions. The brain drain caused by the Castro Revolution, much the same as what is happening now in Venezuela, allowed Cubans to cooperate, rather than compete.

— Rick Sanchez

Most of these immigrants have already been living abroad in places like Spain, Panama, Chile and Costa Rica, which turn out to be merely stopping points in their ultimate destination.

“La Yuma.” Yes, Yuma, as in Arizona. "La Yuma" is Cuban street lingo for the United States, and "Yumas" are what Cubans call Americans. It’s based, simply enough, on a movie that happened to be very popular in Cuba at the time of the Castro uprising; "3:10 to Yuma" the cowboy classic based on an Elmore Leonard short story that arrived in theaters in 1957.

So yes, even after more than 60 years of Marxism and Leninism, Cubans still yearn for Yuma, for the freedom of the Wild West and the rugged determination of its characters.

There is, of course, another reason why Cubans are once again arriving in the U.S. And this one's more basic. Cuba’s economy is hurting for cash — and it is affecting the people’s buying power. The average Cuban worker is said to earn only the equivalent of $20 a month. So why do Cubans come here? Because they can, yes, but some would argue because they must.

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Reading this, some of you would and do argue that we should do away with the Cuban Adjustment Act, after all, “don’t we already have enough immigrants?” Another complaint: “they will take our jobs.” And finally, there’s this: “immigrants are a burden on America.”

That said, I want to take the opportunity to answer those questions with a brief explainer on who Cuban exiles are and what they’ve achieved during their relatively short time in the U.S. It’s a story not often told, which is for me, and others like me, quite personal.

There is no question that Cuban exiles have helped turn Miami into “the marketplace of the Americas” by creating an atmosphere that has attracted billions of dollars in trade, investment and spending from Latin America. In the early 1960s, exiles began arriving proud, yet penniless. They established a reputation for hard work and resiliency. Even doctors and lawyers from Cuba, who wanted to escape Communism, took jobs in the U.S. as waiters and janitors. Many worked two or three jobs, whatever it took to build entrepreneurship by sticking together.

Their credo:  it’s not what we brought in our pocket books, but rather what we brought in our hearts and minds that will make or break us in the U.S.

Determined to succeed, exiles began building business relationships based on trust. Former dentists would fill a former accountant’s cavity in exchange for bookkeeping services. A former doctor would do house calls in exchange for future payments. Bankers loaned money based solely on reputation. It’s how small businesses became powerful companies: on barter, on trust,  on shared experiences.

By the turn of the 21st century, Cuban exiles boasted more companies on the New York Stock Exchange than any other immigrant group. And second-generation Cuban Americans went on to found or run major corporations. Among them: Coca-Cola, Movado, Amazon, Fanjul Sugar, Mas Tec, Nascar, Charlotte Bobcats, Google, Kellogg, Sunward Technologies, Bacardi, McDonalds, Dow Jones and AT&T.

The enormous amount of wealth and prosperity achieved by Cuban American exiles in such a short period of time may be unequaled. The numbers are indeed impressive.

When it comes to education, Cubans have much higher levels of education than the Hispanic population overall. Some 25 percent of Cubans ages 25 and older – compared with 13 percent of all U.S. Hispanics – have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree.

Income: According to a survey by Pew Reseach Center, the median annual personal earnings for Cubans ages 16 and older were $24,400 in 2012, higher than the median earnings for all U.S. Hispanics ($20,000) and just slightly lower than median earnings for the U.S. population ($29,000).

Cuban exiles are also more apt to own their own home, more apt to carry health insurance, and less apt to live in poverty. And perhaps even more impressive is the number of Cuban exiles who by the turn of the century were making in excess of $50,000. That percentage, when compared to their overall population, exceeded even white non Hispanics in the U.S.

Success story, yes. But why and how? What forces led this group of immigrants to achieve so much in so little time?

In a sense, it’s nothing more than timing and happenstance. Cuban exiles were able to pool their resources by combining their skill sets and professions. The brain drain caused by the Castro Revolution, much the same as what is happening now in Venezuela, allowed Cubans to cooperate, rather than compete. They weren’t all rich, or poor, or middle class. They weren’t all farmers, nor businessmen and businesswomen, or craftsmen. They were all of that, and everything in between.

Yet, they were able to work together to build wealth because of what they did share. Almost all Cubans arrived in the U.S. with a will to excel based on their resentment at what they had lost. They were all starting over. They’ve shared a history, a religion, a language and a culture.

What they’ve proven to those of us who follow the loud, well intentioned, but often intolerant immigration argument in this country, is that immigrants are integral to America’s future. It’s important to understand why and how they can succeed. And the Cuban exile experience may provide a useful model.

One more thing (and this is important). All Cuban exiles seem to share a deep-rooted appreciation for that which is most responsible for their success. They owe their achievement to the benevolence and largess of the United States and its people — and they know it!