Amidst an economic downturn in Cuba and an increasing number of dissident Cubans seeking asylum, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced on April 20, 1980 that any Cuban who wished to leave the island could do so, reversing the Communist regime’s closed emigration policy. Between April and October 1980, some 1,700 boats, many arranged by Cuban exiles already in the United States, carried Cubans from the port of Mariel (the departure zone designated by the Castro government) to Florida. Within the context of the ongoing Cold War, the U.S. and Cuban governments sought to use the situation to project a positive image internationally and consolidate power and undermine a geopolitical rival, respectively.
In response, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency in affected areas and, on June 20, established the the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP), which granted temporary status and access to asylum processing and community assistance to both Cubans and thousands of Haitians concurrently fleeing to the United States. During this period, reports that the Cuban government also released prisoners to travel to the United States prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to blockade some 1,400 boats; however, hundreds of Cubans continued to arrive in Florida daily. The CHEP coverage window ended after the Carter administration negotiated an end to the boat lifts with the Cuban government in October 1980.
Alongside the 125,000 Cuban entrants, some 25,000 Haitians entered the United States during the boatlifts. Those who were granted protected status under the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program were made eligible to apply for residency either through a 1984 update to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act or the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services overview of Cuban Haitian Entrant Program (Archived)
USCIS coordinates the reception, processing and community placement of Cubans and Haitians paroled into the United States. USCIS currently has agreements with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Church World Service (CWS) to provide assistance. Additional CHEP services are provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) . . . .
In order to be eligible for services or benefits under CHEP, an individual must . . . [be] granted parole status as a Cuban/Haitian entrant . . . [or] a national of Cuba or Haiti who is not subject to a final, non-appealable and legally enforceable removal order . . .
Cuban and Haitian entrants are eligible to apply for benefits and services from HHS from the date they first enter into Cuban/Haitian Entrant status. . . .
Under the CHEP program, Cuban and Haitian entrants may be assisted in obtaining decent, safe, and sanitary housing; essential furnishings; food or a food allowance; necessary clothing; and other basic necessities, as appropriate. In addition, individuals are provided [employment, orientation, care, and assistance opportunities] . . . .
Cuban and Haitian entrants with family or sponsors in the United States are given 30 days of orientation and referral services. Entrants with no family or sponsors in the United States are given up to 180 days of services . . . .