Miami sees biggest boom of Cuban migrants since 1994 exodus

Yenisleidis Castillo struggled to make a living in her hometown of Santa Cruz, Cuba, where she earned approximately $20 a month working at a bus station depot. Last month, she decided to make the treacherous journey across the Caribbean Sea in search of a better life in the U.S. and on Christmas Day, the 23 year old and 14 other Cuban migrants landed in Lower Matecumbe Key.

Roughly four weeks later, Castillo is among half-a-dozen Cubans standing outside the Miami office of Church World Service, a faith-based social services agency that provides assistance to immigrants and refugees. While she waits to see a case worker, Castillo tells Fox News Latino why she left.

“It was now or never,” Castillo said. “It is impossible to make a living and get ahead in life in Cuba.”

Castillo is also among thousands of Cuban migrants that have left the island fearing the thawing of relations between Havana and Washington means the end of special benefits extended exclusively to them for decades.

In fact, Miami hasn’t seen an influx of Cuban migrants like this one since the 1994 exodus that led to the current U.S. policy of turning away those fleeing the island who are intercepted at sea, commonly known as “Wet foot, dry foot.”

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Large waves of Cubans arrived in the city in the early 1960s, shortly after Fidel Castro assumed power, and then in 1980, when the communist government expelled thousands of political prisoners in what became known as the Mariel boatlift. But unlike past exoduses, this wave of Cuban migrants is not likely to leave a lasting impact in the city politically or socially, community leaders and experts say.

“I don’t think it will change the fabric of our community,” said Raquel Regalado, a member of the Miami-Dade Public Schools Board, which recently voted to request federal aid to deal with thousands of new Cuban students. “This exodus is nothing like El Mariel or 1994. Miami-Dade has become too diverse for it to create political or social change.”

Armando Ibarra, a principal for Ai Advisory, a Coral Gables government affairs and political research firm, concurred. “I don’t see this influx being as impactful as the rafter crisis of the mid-1990s or El Mariel, which were more massive,” Ibarra said. “And Miami is a much bigger place. There are a lot of people immigrating from other countries.”

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by the Pew Research Center, 43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. during fiscal year 2015 – a 78 percent increase over the previous year.

While a majority of Cuban migrants came through the Texas-Mexico border, 9,999 entered the country through Miami, more than double the 4,709 Cuban migrants that arrived in South Florida in fiscal year 2014. And more could be on the way.

Many of the new immigrants are part of the 8,000 Cubans who have been stranded in Costa Rica in recent months, after Nicaragua stopped accepting Cuban travel visas.

Still, these figures pale in comparison to the 124,000 Cubans who emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and the roughly 35,000 Cubans who made the perilous trek from Cuba to Florida during a five-week span in 1994.

Alicia Garcia, founder of Fundacion Exodo 94, a Miami non-profit that helps migrants find shelter and jobs, said another major difference is that the current crop of Cubans are not as inclined to establish roots in South Florida like their predecessors. Since 2014, Fundacion has provided assistance to roughly 500 Cuban migrants, Garcia said. Of those, only 13 remain in Miami.

“People think they are going to overpopulate Miami,” Garcia said. “There have been nearly 44,000 Cubans coming into the U.S. But I guarantee you their impact has not been felt in Miami.”

Garcia said this generation of Cuban migrants is more concerned with quickly obtaining work permits and finding a job, regardless of where in the U.S. they have to go. “My organization has helped Cubans find work in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Texas,” she said. “I’m trying to get some to stay in Texas until they find a place to work so they can avoid the expense of coming to Miami and then leaving again to another state.”

The immediate concern among local Miami government leaders is to get the Obama administration to help pay for the social services being provided to Cuban migrants. On January 7, Miami’s Cuban-American congressional representatives – Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen – sent a third letter to President Obama demanding assistance to deal with the sudden rise in Cuban migrants.

“Through its homeless program, the city of Miami has been able to place Cuban migrants into shelters,” the letter states. “However, these centers are now at full capacity and can no longer accept any of the 8,000 new refugees expected to arrive in the coming weeks.”

Curbelo, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen also said aid organizations such as Church World Services, Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee do not have the funds to assist new refugees.

“They are already overwhelmed by the surge of Cuban nationals,” the letter states. “We are concerned that the increase of Cuban refugees into our communities, and the lack of a federal response, effectively will amount to an unfunded federal mandate on state and local governments.”