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How a migrant influx is causing tensions in one of the most Hispanic cities in the US

Verónica Egui Brito and Syra Ortiz Blanes, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

HIALEAH, Fla. — Less than a week after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and catching a flight to Florida, Joseliel Montilla, his wife and their five-year-old daughter waited on a cold February morning outside the Department of Children & Families outpost in Hialeah where their family members had taken turns spending the night — not because they had nowhere else to go, but because they wanted to beat the daily rush on the office where new arrivals apply for refugee benefits with the state.

Montilla, originally from the province of Artemisa, says his family fled “misery and persecution in Cuba.” Now, they are making a new home in Hialeah, following in the footsteps of Montilla’s sister, who arrived here two years prior and rented a two-bedroom apartment with her husband on the east side of the city to accommodate their recently arrived relatives from the island.

Amid a historic rush on the border, the family is part of an unquantifiable group of migrants who have recently chosen to settle in this majority-Cuban city of roughly a quarter-million people in northwest Miami-Dade County. But their presence is increasingly becoming a source of division, with Hialeah’s mayor laying blame on new arrivals for some of the city’s problems, including a lack of affordable housing.

Mayor Esteban Bovo, Jr. has claimed that as many as 80,000 Cubans have arrived in Hialeah over the last two years, stretching the city’s resources. He says it’s a plausible estimate when considering that more than 420,000 migrants have come to the U.S. from Cuba during that time, which he likened to a “Mariel on steroids,” referring to the 1980 mass-flotilla from Cuba to Florida.

“Not all come here. But if you assume that at least 75% of them end up in South Florida, it’s reasonable to assume that half of that ends up here in Hialeah,” Bovo told Herald reporters.

The truth is, no one has been able to say how many migrants have actually come to Hialeah to reunite with relatives and friends or to find familiarity in a new country. Even the mayor acknowledges that he is guessing.


But the presence of newly arrived migrants is reflected in the lines of families at the local Children and Families offices applying for relief; in the trucks full of workers looking for jobs outside local businesses, and in the makeshift shelter of a local church that houses migrants with nowhere else to go.

City officials — who will hold the first of several “immigration workshops” on Monday in an effort to better understand the facts surrounding Hialeah’s migrant influx — are investigating whether a spike in population is leading to an increase in crime, and whether newly arrived Cubans are the cause of a housing crunch that has driven property owners to park campers outside their homes to rent as housing.

“We have lived peacefully for 10 years until my neighbors decided to rent and connect two trailers for the new residents of Hialeah, the migrants,” Tamara Reyes, 52, told the City Council last month. “If this is not controlled, it will be time to move from Hialeah.”

A Unique Struggle


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