Life in the Echo Chamber

The day after the Coast Guard fiasco involving six Cuban rafters off the beaches of Surfside, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart went to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and called on the Clinton administration to suspend its 1995 immigration accord with Cuba. "This administration's policy toward Cuba can no longer hold," the South Florida Republican declared. "The administration cannot continue to sweep the Cuban crisis under the carpet. The Cuban crisis and the tragedy of the oppression of the Cuban people must no longer be treated as an immigration issue."

This is not the first time Diaz-Balart has condemned the 1995 agreement with Cuba. The congressman has long been a critic of the policy. The only difference this time was the video being played over and over on television: members of the U.S. Coast Guard using fire hoses and then pepper spray to subdue rafters. It was an egregious, gut-wrenching sight. Who could possibly support an accord that spawned such behavior?

Following Diaz-Balart's speech, the Miami Herald, which had previously supported the immigration accord, ran an editorial titled, "Scrap 'Wet-Feet' Policy On Cuban Refugees." The editorial stated that the "shameful episode [involving the Coast Guard] once again exposed U.S. immigration policy as a porous sieve. Perhaps this time the televised images of Coast Guardsmen and police behaving like Castro's thugs will be jarring enough to provoke Congress and the Clinton administration to fix the holes."

It noted that the 1995 agreement was created out of "a sense of urgency and pragmatism" resulting from an influx of nearly 30,000 Cuban refugees during the summer of 1994. Under the terms of the accord, the United States agreed to issue 20,000 visas for Cubans to legally immigrate to America while repatriating Cubans picked up at sea. The loophole, as is now evident, was that any Cuban reaching dry land would be permitted to stay in the United States.

"For a time," the Herald editorial continued, "it served the humane purpose of ending the tidal wave of desperate people leaving Cuba on anything that could float.... But the policy hasn't solved the problem. The illegal flow, augmented by smugglers, hasn't been stopped. And by specifying that the goal is 'reaching U.S. soil,' the policy creates an incentive to use smugglers with fast boats. Even the definition of 'U.S. soil' is problematic. Does it mean a wet beach? At the three-mile U.S. territorial limit? At the twelve-mile marker for international waters? Aboard a Coast Guard cutter?"

The editorial then noted the comments of Diaz-Balart, who not only called for an end to the immigration accord between the United States and Cuba, but advocated a naval blockade -- designed both to stem the tide of rafters and prevent oil shipments from reaching the island -- if Cuban Pres. Fidel Castro unleashes another mass exodus of refugees.

"The Coast Guard," the editorial went on, "would no longer be regarded as the rafters' 'enemy.' To prevent an influx, the United States would advise Cuba's regime that it faces harsh action, including a blockade, if it then stimulates another uncontrolled exit. Mr. Diaz-Balart's idea has merit as a starting point for reforming Cuban refugee policy. But never forget: The problem is Castro's tyranny. The return of democracy to Cuba is the ultimate solution."

I've read that editorial perhaps ten times trying to understand its key points. In essence it argues that the accord, although well-intentioned, should now be viewed as inadequate and should be replaced with the military threat of a naval blockade.

Over the past week, I've been trying to imagine where such a policy would lead us. My intention here isn't to pick on Diaz-Balart or the Herald. (I happen to be a big fan of the Herald's opinion pages since Tom Fiedler took over as editor.) I'm merely using their statements as a road map to think through a very complex and emotional issue.

Diaz-Balart argues for scrapping the accord on the grounds that it is both immoral and ineffective. The Herald never directly addresses the morality issue, but concentrates instead on the accord's apparent shortcomings as being the main reason for abandoning it.

Let's start with the question of whether the 1995 agreement is fair to Cubans, and, specifically the issue of repatriating rafters picked up in the water. When the images of those six desperate Cubans first appeared on TV screens across South Florida, and then eventually around the world, the reaction was one of revulsion. No one wants to believe those images represent America. The use of pepper spray on refugees in the water was both stupid and unconscionable, and the protests by Cuban Americans that ensued were justified.

But is the larger immigration policy immoral? Is it wrong to turn away people who want to live in the United States, or must we admit everyone who seeks entry? Once you accept the premise that the United States has the right to restrict immigration and control its borders, then it follows that some people are going to be hurt by that policy decision.

When you view recent events through the longer lens of time (say, the past 40 years), no one has been treated better under U.S. immigration policy than Cubans, who continue to receive preferential treatment that is the envy of aspiring immigrants around the world. I'm not arguing that the favoritism afforded Cubans isn't warranted -- now is not the time for that debate -- I'm merely stating a fact that seems too easily forgotten in Miami. Look at the history, starting with Operation Peter Pan in 1960 to the boatlift of 3000 Cubans from Camarioca in 1965 to the Cuban Adjustment Act a year later (which allowed 123,000 Cubans to apply for permanent residence and today provides permanent residency to any Cuban after one year in the United States) to the Freedom Flights of the mid-Sixties and early Seventies to the 125,000 Cubans who arrived during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 to the agreements in 1994 and 1995 that allowed more than 20,000 Cubans, housed in detention camps in Guantanamo and Panama to come to this nation. Add to all this the 20,000 U.S. visas now being issued each year in Havana and it is impossible to argue that Cubans have either been mistreated or victimized by U.S. immigration policy.

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