July 6, 1999
Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1999
That pathetically unequal battle last Wednesday between four U.S. Coast Guard craft and six unarmed, almost naked Cuban refugees aboard a tiny skiff off the Florida coast was gut-wrenching.
Coast Guard officers, who normally rescue people, instead aimed their fire hoses on the exhausted Cubans and later tried to disable one with pepper spray while they were still in the ocean. It was a wild and indefensible overreaction by a Coast Guard that appeared to have far more equipment and manpower than heart or common sense.
Yet the refugees' desperate attempt to reach land also showed their canny understanding of one of the most unfair quirks in U.S. immigration law: Cuban rafters intercepted at sea are unceremoniously returned home, but if they somehow reach U.S. soil, most are allowed to stay and a year later receive a coveted "Green Card" that makes them permanent U.S. residents. Indeed, nine other Cubans landed in Florida the day after this incident.
Try justifying that to the tens of thousands of Mexicans, Central Americans, Haitians and other illegal immigrants who are deported from the U.S. yearly--even after living here for years--and you soon understand why this Cuban preference is fundamentally unfair.
Historically the U.S. has granted political asylum to refugees who could demonstrate a legitimate fear of persecution if they were returned home. In practice, most refugees from communist regimes readily received asylum, while those from right-wing dictatorships, or other humanitarian or economic hellholes, had a far more difficult time making their case.
This double-standard became more glaring in the late 1980s, when the U.S. granted asylum to tens of thousands of Cubans and Nicaraguans, while refugees from Haiti and other parts of Central America lived in fear of deportation. A bill proposed two years ago by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), that would grant 500,000 from these latter groups permanent residence, is still pending.
The current arrangement on Cuban rafters was negotiated between the U.S. and Cuba in 1994, after the last Cuban boatlift. The U.S. agreed to grant 20,000 visas annually, while the Cubans would take back any rafters caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. But Cubans who somehow made it to U.S. soil--even those now delivered by a growing network of smugglers--would be accepted with minimum ado.
Life in Cuba today is undeniably miserable but not appreciably more so than in Haiti, hurricane-ravaged Nicaragua or dozens of other Third World countries.
An even-handed immigration policy would have averted the sorry spectacle in Florida. Like refugees from anywhere else, the Cubans would have been escorted to a detention center where they could have made their case for political asylum--and either been permitted to stay here or returned home.
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