Life in the Echo Chamber

The immorality of America's immigration policy exists not in its treatment of Cubans, but in its treatment of the rest of the world when compared with Cubans.

I agree it seems cruel that someone caught in ankle-deep water -- so close to freedom -- could then be shipped back to Cuba. But how is it any less cruel for a person who illegally makes it to the United States and works six days a week for minuscule wages sewing dresses or picking vegetables to one day be rounded up by INS agents and sent back to Guatemala or Honduras or Mexico?

The incident with the Coast Guard off Surfside didn't come about because U.S. policy is too strict with regard to Cubans, but because it's so forgiving. The pictures in the newspaper and the scenes on television were incredibly powerful, but they highlighted the wrong thing. A Cuban refugee caught in the surf being subject to repatriation has focused attention on the absurdity of the "wet-feet" portion of the policy.

The real problem, which no one in Miami dares address, is the dry-land provision in the agreement. Allowing Cubans who reach dry land to stay in the United States, and granting them residency 366 days after they arrive, is the lure that spurs flight from Cuba. Abolish that long-standing aspect of U.S. policy and the flow of rafters would slow to a trickle.

Realistically, though, such a major shift in U.S. policy is not going to happen. Instead we return to the ideas promoted by Diaz-Balart and the Herald, who jointly argue that the 1995 immigration agreement with Cuba is ineffective. More than 1300 Cuban refugees have landed on U.S. soil this year, more than three times the number who made it during the same period last year. Clearly those numbers are troubling, but they're hardly catastrophic. During one two-day period of the rafter crisis in August 1994, for instance, the Coast Guard interdicted nearly 5000 rafters.

Do 1300 rafters landing on our shores this year constitute, in the words of the Herald editorial, a "porous sieve"? Up until this year, it seems, the so-called wet-feet policy worked fairly well. So what's changed? Smugglers. Using fast boats, smugglers now routinely drop off a group of Cubans just a few hundred yards from shore, thereby dramatically increasing their chances of reaching dry land.

So if the immediate problem is smugglers, the Coast Guard should develop a more comprehensive strategy for addressing that specific issue. Does the Coast Guard need more resources? More helicopters? More ships? Can the navy be of assistance? Since smuggling is a crime, should the FBI be more involved? Smugglers appear to use the Bahamas as a jump-off point, but are we pressuring Bahamian officials to do everything in their power to curtail smuggling?

Many of these smugglers are probably well known to Cuban Americans in Miami who hire them to bring family members into the United States. Is the exile community ready to renounce the use of smugglers and help federal agents capture these pirates who profit from the misery of the Cuban people?

Rather than search for answers to these questions, let's follow the Herald editorial. The smugglers win. The United States concedes it is unable to stop the flow of refugees. Enforcement of the 1995 agreement with Cuba is futile, so we abandon the policy. No more repatriations. Janet Reno announces that Cubans picked up in the water -- whether in the Florida Straits or the surf of Miami Beach -- will be brought to America, where they can eventually become citizens. At the same time, we warn Castro that if he unleashes another flood of refugees, we will encircle the island with warships and cut off oil shipments to his country.

Talk about mixed messages. We'll be encouraging Cubans to take to the sea while simultaneously pressuring Castro to use all the brutal, totalitarian means at his disposal to stop people from leaving the island. Where would a policy like this rate on the cruelty scale?

More important, why would anyone be confident that Castro would retreat from the threat of a naval blockade? It seems more likely he would relish the worldwide attention and sympathy he would garner by once again challenging the military might of the United States. Poor little Cuba, surrounded by aircraft carriers and destroyers and submarines. Every day, all day, he'd be the lead story on CNN.

So let's imagine for a moment that Castro allows a mass exodus to occur. Having threatened a naval blockade, we would have little choice but to implement one. Now a new question arises: How far are we willing to go to enforce it? Is the United States prepared to sink an oil tanker that tries to run the blockade? Suppose a Russian-flagged vessel attempts to pass? The Russian military seems eager to reassert itself as a world power; just look at how unpredictable the Russians were in Kosovo. Are we really going to risk reliving the Cuban Missile Crisis because 1300 rafters made it to shore in the first six months of 1999 and some idiot Coast Guardsman used pepper spray on a refugee in the water?

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