May 9, 1980
The first of the 19,048 refugees who had escaped from Mariel, Cuba, seeking political asylum were transported from southern Florida to Fort Chaffee, at Barling near Fort Smith (Sebastian County). An estimated 25,390 had been housed there by the time the last few left in February 1982. Although only a small percentage of the thousands who were screened were found to have criminal records, rumors that the Cuban government had forced thousands of criminals and insane persons onto the boats in Mariel harbor may explain the negative reaction of many Arkansans to the presence of the refugees in northwest Arkansas. The situation is believed to have influenced Governor Bill Clinton’s defeat in his campaign for reelection against Frank White in 1980.