With the images of Vietnam still fresh on their minds, Americans in the mid-1970s were confronted with horrifying news footage of half-starved Vietnamese refugees reaching the shores of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines on small, makeshift boats. Many of the men, women, and children who survived the perilous journey across the South China Sea were rescued by passing ships. Over one million boat people from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were eventually granted asylum in the United States and several other countries. Most were lost at sea, thousands of others perished of disease, starvation, and dehydration, or were murdered by pirates. This final chapter in the history of the Vietnam War would live in the collective memory of an entire generation. Personal accounts of the refugees' hardships and courage would inspire countless books, movies, websites, documentaries, magazine articles, and television news reports in the United States. For years to come, the boat people would serve as an enduring testimony to the tragic aftermath of America's defeat in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese exodus began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many of the survivors would languish for almost twenty years in refugee camps throughout Asia, awaiting asylum, exile, or forced repatriation. Those boat people who escaped Vietnam in the late 1980s were labeled "economic migrants" and not granted refugee status. Finally in 1989, an agreement between the United Nations and the Vietnamese government resulted in the "orderly departure program," which forcibly returned over 100,000 Vietnamese boat people to their homeland. The agreement in Geneva stipulated that the boat people were not to be punished for attempting to escape. By the late 1990s, another 1.6 million boat people had been resettled in various countries around the world.
The term "boat people" acquired special significance in the U.S. context during the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Haitians journeyed across the Caribbean Sea in homemade rafts and unseaworthy boats seeking political asylum in the United States. In the years following the 1959 Revolution, the number of Cubans attempting the perilous journey to freedom across the Florida straits on boats and rafts remained relatively small. But in 1980, after several thousand Cubans stormed the Peruvian Embassy in Havana seeking asylum, Castro temporarily eased restrictions on emigration and prompted a flotilla of refugees headed towards Florida's shores. The Mariel boat lift resulted in the mass exodus of an estimated 125,000 Cuban refugees. For the first time in history, Americans experienced a flood of boat people first-hand, watching the events unfold on national television. As thousands of arriving Cubans were greeted by relatives living in exile, the American public responded with increasing fear to the sensational media accounts of prison and insane asylum inmates deported along with the refugees. Later studies would show that the image of the "Marielitos" popularized by the press was inaccurate, as only about 1 percent of the Mariel refugees had criminal pasts. But President Jimmy Carter, who had initially welcomed the immigrants, responded by imposing stiff penalties on any vessels returning to U.S. waters carrying Cuban refugees. Boats were impounded and their owners fined or imprisoned. In 1984, Cuba and the United States reached an agreement that capped the flow of boat people.
The agreement was short-lived, however, as economic conditions worsened in Cuba and another wave of about 35,000 Cuban boat people, or "rafters," hit Florida's shores in the 1990s. The U.S. government, in a precedent-breaking decision, refused to grant the Cuban rafters entry. Instead, they set up a tent city in the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where thousands of rafters awaited their fate. Those who could prove that they were political refugees fearing death or persecution by the Cuban government were eventually granted asylum and relocated in the United States. Most were absorbed into the Cuban exile community in Miami. Others were sent back to Cuba, where they faced an uncertain future.
Between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, over 100,000 Haitian boat people also sought asylum in the United States. In 1981, President Reagan issued an Executive Order directing the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept Haitian boat people at sea. The majority were labeled economic migrants and repatriated. When President Aristide was ousted in the 1991 coup, political repression and economic hardships increased in Haiti, prompting another exodus. The U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay again served as a screening facility for boat people seeking refuge in the United States. Most of the 34,000 Haitians interdicted at sea between 1991 and 1992 were taken to Guantanamo and repatriated. Many of those who were granted permission to stay settled in a section of Miami, Florida, that came to be known as "Little Haiti."
As late twentieth-century Americans (particularly in Florida) witnessed the first large-scale migration into the United States to occur via make-shift boats, rafts, and inner tubes, they greeted the boat people from neighboring Caribbean countries with both hostility and pity. In Miami, particularly, newspapers carried almost daily reports of bodies washed ashore or emaciated Cubans and Haitians picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard or by volunteer pilots with the Cuban-American organization, Brothers to the Rescue. Popular reaction to the U.S. government's policies towards boat people was also mixed: public outcries alternately charged U.S. government officials with racism, cruelty, or laxity. But one thing was certain: the phenomenon had altered America's—particularly Miami's—demographics forever. It had also added new ingredients to the American cultural stew, as Cuban and Haitian cuisine, art, literature, and music would continue to gain popularity around the country.
Freeman, James M. Changing Identities: Vietnamese Americans 1975-1995. Boston, Allyn & Bacon, 1995.
Gardner, Mary. Boat People: A Novel. Athens, U of Georgia P, 1997.
Leyva, Josefina. Freedom Rafters. Trans. by Dorothy J. Smith. Coral Gables, Florida, Editorial Ponce de Leon, 1993.
Stepick, Alex, and Nancy Foner. Pride Against Prejudice: Haitians in the United States. Boston, Allyn & Bacon, 1998.
"Vietnamese Boatpeople Connection." http://www.boatpeople.com.December 1998.