The strange twists of U.S. refugee policy

Citing terrorist dangers, Federal immigration authorities announced a crackdown at U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico Aug. 11. Refugees who are detained will no longer have access to U.S. courts for rulings as to whether they stay in the country or face deportation. Border agents themselves will be making the decision. The policy applies to citizens of all nations except Canada and Mexico. Cuba, however, is a different story. Washington claims, without a shred of evidence, that the island is a “haven for terrorists.” But any Cuban who arrives on U.S. soil can count on the red-carpet treatment. Right away they receive Medicaid, a work permit, housing guarantees, a Social Security number, and welfare benefits. And after a one-year stay, they gain permanent residency status. This largesse flows from the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, a law that for years has wrought murder at sea and caused generalized mayhem. For that law to work as intended, U.S. authorities have had to renege on carrying out agreements with the Cuban government. They were supposed to have issued 20,000 visas every year that allow for legal entry, but for years the State Department has averaged less than 1,000. Cubans heading for the United States have taken measures into their own hands, crossing either on rafts, or in tiny boats sent over by Florida profiteers. Right-wing Miami Cubans, enamored of the Cuban Adjustment Act, apparently accept the reality that their compatriots will either die at sea or join them in Florida. The news stories are of martyrs, or of heroes, depending on the seas and sharks. Recently, however, Attorney General John Ashcroft commented on the case of 20-year-old David Joseph, a Haitian incarcerated for two years in the U.S. after fleeing persecution in his homeland. According to Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Ashcroft spilled a few beans: “Sometimes it’s important to make a statement about groups of people that come,” Ashcroft said. History and myth have it that a beneficent republic honors individual freedoms and new opportunities. It welcomes the oppressed, one by one. But apparently, for Ashcroft, some people may be of more use than others. Cubans have earned their colors as propaganda tools, thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act. They have value. The deaths of Cuban rafters recall Secretary of State Albright’s famous words about Iraqi children dying under the sanctions against Iraq: their deaths are “worth it.” So much for pious incantations about respect for individual human rights! A boat left the Dominican Republic on July 29 headed for Puerto Rico with 80 people aboard. Fifty of them are missing, presumed dead. According to the Times, “More than 7,000 Dominican migrants have been detained trying to reach wealthier Puerto Rico since Oct. 1, double the number for the previous 12 months.” Puerto Ricans must be relieved to learn that their financial ratings are up. Noteworthy, too, is that it takes a disaster to bring thousands of Dominican boat people into the news. Cubans make the grade with a lot less, a handful of people here, a small boat there. Their script, however, has to do with opting out of a revolution, even though for them, no less than for refugees from all over, the appeal is money and the lure of material goods. The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.