The Cuban Refugee Problem

Authored by Alexis Stone

Cover of Voorhees’ January 1961 report on the Cuban refugee problem

Cover of Voorhees’ January 1961 report on the Cuban refugee problem

On January 1, 1959, after years of guerrilla warfare, Fidel Castro’s forces ousted Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (Daniel, 2004, p. 193). Nowhere was the impact of Castro’s revolutionary socialist state felt more acutely than in Miami Florida, the principal port of entry for Cubans seeking refuge (Mitchell, 1962, p. 3).


Report to the President on the Cuban Refugee Problem

In November 1960, in an effort to deal with the influx of Cuban immigrants into Miami, the Eisenhower administration appointed Tracy S. Voorhees to look into the situation of Cubans in Miami (Daniel, 2004, p. 193). Only a few years earlier, Mr. Voorhees headed the 1956 Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief (Garcia, 1996, p. 21). The document pictured above is the cover of Mr. Voorhees’ 15-page final report to President Eisenhower on the “Cuban Refugees Problem,” and is included in a collection held by the Center for Migration Studies entitled “Cuban Refugee Conference.” This report was issued on January 18, 1961: fifteen days after the United States officially broke diplomatic relations with Cuba (Masud-Piloto, 1996, p. 34).

In the report, Mr. Voorhees describes the “acts of unexampled kindness” shown by Miami to the Cuban refugees, including the extensive welfare assistance provided by religious and nonsectarian groups (Voorhees, 1961, p. 7), underscoring “our nation’s traditional humane policy of granting asylum as long as they need it to people fleeing from oppression, however they come in and whatever their status” (Voorhees, 1961, p. 7). Indeed, during this period, President Eisenhower called upon the American people to “open their homes and hearts” to the fleeing Cubans (Reimers, 2005 p. 263).

Despite charitable contributions, the report acknowledges the strain that the “ever-mounting Cuban population” places on the resources of Miami, and goes on to question “the community’s capacity to cope with it.” Accordingly, a great deal of the report focuses on the “resettlement problem”: the need to move Cuban refugees from Miami to other counties in Florida and to other states. Mr. Voorhees explains the reluctance of many refugees to do so because “their natural apprehensions about life in a cold climate to which they are not accustomed” and a “desire . . . to return home if that becomes possible” (Voorhees, 1961, p. 8). In a list of recommendations found at the end of the report, Mr. Voorhees suggests providing assurance to refugees that regardless of where in the U.S. they settle, the U.S. government will help them return to Cuba, should conditions there improve and should they wish to return (Voorhees, 1961, p. 14).

It was not until December 17, 2014 – nearly 55 years after Mr. Voorhees issued his recommendations– that Cuban refugees had any hope of returning home. On this date, President Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba (Baker, 2014, p. A1). Whether Cuban refugees (many of whom are now U.S. citizens) choose to return to Cuba remains to be seen, and whether the U.S. government will help them return is notably absent from diplomatic discussions.


Baker, Peter, “U.S. Will Restore Full Relations with Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” The New York Times, December 17, 2014
Daniel, R., Guarding the Golden Door:  American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882, New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2004.
García, María Cristina, Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto, From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959-1995, Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
Mitchell, W. L., . “Social Security History,” March 1962.
Reimers, D. M., “Other Immigrants,” NYU Press, 2005.
Voorhees, Tracy S., Report to the President of the United States on the Cuban Refugee Problem,. US Bureau of the Census, Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961.