Alexander M. Stephens writes about migration, race, and policing, and incarceration. He is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Michigan.
If Trump and his advisers were trying to take a page from Fidel Castro’s playbook, when he overwhelmed then President Jimmy Carter by allowing thousands to migrate in the Mariel Boatlift that began 39 years ago this week, they read it wrong. The Trump Administration’s proposal may inadvertently reveal their recognition of a truth they have tried hard to obscure: Most immigrants to the U.S. are neither criminal nor dangerous.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had considered a proposal to force people from immigrant detention centers onto buses and drop them in U.S. “sanctuary cities.” These municipalities, ranging from Santa Fe, to San Francisco, to New York, have taken measures to limit public employees’ collaboration with federal deportation agents. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initially rejected the White House proposition, arguing that it presented liability concerns and “PR risks.” Trump has since revived the plan on Twitter, but it seems unlikely to move forward.
Why anyone thought the proposal was a good idea is not entirely clear. There may be clues, though, in this administration’s habit of invoking—and misrepresenting—another moment when thousands of people were seeking asylum at the U.S. border.
Thirty-nine years ago on April 20, boats of Cuban migrants set sail for Key West. Nearly 125,000 people ultimately made the voyage, known as the Mariel boatlift. Castro attempted to use their departure to consolidate support on the island by labeling them “scum” and “criminals.” Many in the United States believed him, as rumors spread that the Cuban government was using the exodus to “empty” its prisons and mental institutions.
During the boatlift, reports emerged that strangers were being forced onto vessels alongside the relatives of Cubans already living in the United States. This fueled suspicions that many of the “Mariel Cubans” had been taken from jails and prisons to be transported to Florida. In fact, upwards of 80 percent of them had never been incarcerated. The complex stories of those who had been locked up rarely got reported. In Miami, ubiquitous headlines about rising crime cast blame on the Cuban newcomers, especially those with limited options who ended up living in city parks or on the street. By the time Al Pacino appeared on screen three years later as a murderous boatlift arrival named Tony Montana, associations between Mariel, migration, and crime had stuck.
Donald Trump clearly knows the Scarface story. Shortly after kicking off his primary campaign by alleging that Mexico was "sending" drug dealers and rapists, Trump said it was just like when Fidel Castro sent over "hardcore criminals” in 1980. Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller also knows about the Mariel boatlift. In a press conference to publicize the RAISE Act—a bill to drastically reduce legal immigration—Miller cited an economic study claiming that the Mariel Cubans depressed wages in Miami. He offered no context for the contested research and then made the specious claim that cutting legal immigration today would slow the rise in “wealth inequality.”
Trump seems to think he can adapt Castro’s tactics to scare people about Central American asylum seekers today. But unlike Castro, he is proposing to release people from U.S. detention centers and drop them off elsewhere in the same country. This conflicts directly with his refrain that immigrants pose a threat and must be turned away or locked up. So why is he considering this plan?
Given their apparent familiarity with the boatlift, Trump and Miller probably know that many people came to see it as a major failure for the Carter administration, an instance when Castro outmaneuvered the United States. Maybe they thought they could use the same tactic to stick it to the “Radical Democrats” and show them what some imagine open borders would mean. In their fantasies, liberal cities with ordinances to limit ICE’s reach would be forced to admit the emptiness of previous claims to welcome immigrants when faced with the sudden appearance of thousands of brown people in the middle of downtown. In Trump’s ideal scenario, protests over the newcomers would cost Democrats votes, as they probably did in some places where the Mariel Cubans landed nearly 40 years ago.
Of course, we have a sense for what would actually happen if the White House were to implement this plan. It is what they have been doing for months already in cities along the southern border. Prior to the midterm elections, Trump proposed putting up tent cities to detain asylum seekers instead of continuing the practice of releasing them to relatives while immigration officials reviewed their claims. At Christmas, as Trump was trying to use a government shutdown to gain funding for his border wall, ICE released hundreds of people at a downtown bus station in El Paso instead of coordinating with shelters as they had in the past. The agency later claimed that was a “mistake," but attorneys and activists in the region argue it is one of a number of intentional stunts meant to create a sense of emergency and push Congress to concede to demands for more detention capacity and less legal restraint.
The practice of dropping people at Greyhound stations in southwestern cities has since become routine. In response, local residents have come together to care for people left in the cold by ICE and address the hardships imposed by federal actions. In “sanctuary cities” like Chicago and Los Angeles, where between one-fifth and one-third of residents were born in other countries, there is little reason to think the response would be any different.
The contrast between reality and the White House’s apocalyptic vision highlights the persistence of a strain of thought deeply rooted in U.S. history. Many are willing to believe the idea that immigrants are a problem because of a longstanding tendency to view new groups as sources of danger. This pattern always has been shaped by race and racism. It was the case during the Mariel boatlift, when a large number of Cubans of African descent migrated to the United States for the first time since the Cuban Revolution. It is the case today. Trump explicitly condemned immigration from Central American, Caribbean, and African nations, which he reportedly deemed “shithole countries."
If this administration subscribes to the view that immigrants are threats and must be contained, how can they justify unleashing such people on unsuspecting U.S. communities? Perhaps it is because they know their claims are distorted.
Immigration officials make it a point to describe asylum seekers as “illegal aliens” if they cross the border between official ports of entry, even when they do it with the intention of turning themselves in. The overwhelming majority of those groups have no criminal record. For those with a criminal conviction, government reporting methods are designed to inflate the perceived danger posed by the people they detain. ICE arrested 158,581 people in 2018, and the agency claims that 66 percent of them had criminal convictions. Many of those convictions were for DUI and other traffic offenses, and immigration violations, including “illegal entry” itself. ICE classifies people convicted of any of these offenses as “criminal aliens,” a deceptive term that the agency, the White House, and their allies use to argue for detaining and deporting more people.
In light of enduring myths about Mariel Cubans, Trump and his advisers might be forgiven for buying into the Scarface hype. It is hard to believe they are unaware of how they are twisting and warping the current situation. It seems though, that they actually do understand what Castro almost certainly knew about the Cubans departing the island in 1980—most people who leave their homes for another country do not pose a threat to their new neighbors. On the whole, people migrate after making decisions within significant constraints to do what they think is best for themselves and their families.
The claim at the heart of the leaked White House proposal is that poor and non-white immigrants ought to be feared. It is an idea that has helped justify the growth of a massive detention and deportation system over the past four decades, and the Trump administration wants to continue the trend. But that idea is founded on fabrications and myths. The proposal itself suggests that the White House knows it.