- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

There are many things that puzzle foreigners about America. Take a stroll down the aisles of any bookstore in Canada, the United Kingdom, or any other country with well-stocked shelves, and the sheer myriad of volumes purporting to guide foreigners through our Byzantine and often Orwellian immigration system testifies to the schizophrenia of our immigration policies.

Foreigners are not alone in their confusion over American immigration laws. Apparently, the U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration are just as bewildered. How else does one explain two months in which both Cuban and Haitian immigrants, equally fearful and equally poor, wash up on the shores of Florida, and one group is automatically allowed to stay in the United States while the other group is whisked back to its homeland quicker than you can say, "Fidel is a commie pig"?

These two cases illustrate how America is still fighting the Cold War through its immigration and refugee policies. On Nov. 25, 1999 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez was brought ashore in the United States after a boatload of Cuban immigrants capsized and his mother perished. He has since become a political football in a disgraceful international custody battle.

On New Year's Day, a boatload of 400 mostly Haitian immigrants, packed into a 60-foot vessel, ran aground off the Florida Keys. Several young children were also on that boat; nevertheless, the entire group was returned to Haiti. The U.S. Coast Guard reported that three of the passengers, two Chinese nationals and one Haitian, had requested asylum and were being held on a vessel at sea, pending the outcome of the asylum interviews. The Haitian passengers say they all asked for an asylum interview, but that the Coast Guard ignored their requests.

A policy known as "wet foot/dry foot" is most immediately behind this disparity. Under this proceeding, Cubans are generally allowed to remain in the United States if they reach shore, but Haitians are summarily deported. This unjust policy is often applied arbitrarily, however, as Cubans who are found at sea are brought to Miami to apply for residency. Last year's debacle in Miami involving the Coast Guard taking fire hoses to Cuban immigrants is a case in point: The Cubans never reached dry land and legally were only eligible for return to Cuba. Nevertheless, they were taken into custody and released to relatives. Another laughable incident was that of El Duque Hernandez, a Cuban baseball player who escaped to the Bahamas and was subsequently welcomed to America with a humanitarian visa. Within weeks, he was a newly minted millionaire, pitching for the New York Yankees. However, no matter how compelling their cases might have been, humanitarian visas were nonexistent for the New Year's Day Haitians they were neither fleeing communism nor throwing fastballs.

Haitians in America are understandably upset at the subjective way in which this policy is applied. They blame racism, and while there may be a shred of truth in those charges, the culprit in this human drama is not skin color, but America's determination to try and beat the dead horse of communism, and play out a nonexistent Cold War.

In 1998, President Clinton and Congress adopted legislation that made Nicaraguan and Cuban immigrants who had been in the United States before 1996 automatically eligible for permanent residency, or green cards. In the same legislation, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries were also put on the road to permanent residency. Haitians were left out of these protective laws, despite the fact that most of the Haitians who would have been covered had been brought in and resettled in the United States after being interdicted at sea, held at Guantanamo Bay, and immigration judges had determined that they had a credible fear of persecution if sent back to Haiti.

Human misery knows no ideology. It cannot be assumed that every Cuban who lands on our shores and is allowed to stay is fleeing communism, just as it cannot be assumed that every Haitian trying to reach America is fleeing poverty. And, politically, Haiti is no picnic. While Haiti has supposedly changed for the better since the restoration of elected civilian government, many of the thugs previously in office still wield considerable power. Human rights abuses abound, committed by extremists on both the right and the left. Parliament has not met for a year, and no constitutionally structured government has been in place since 1997. Elections, scheduled for this year, are likely to be postponed. Haiti makes Cuba look very stable indeed.

America cannot let in every person who wants to come here. We have to have immigration laws. However, we need immigration laws that are fair, that apply equally to persons from every country, and that cannot be conveniently rearranged by any ethnic group that decides to organize or by politicians seeking to curry favors with those groups. After all, if Elian Gonzalez were Haitian instead of Cuban, he would have been returned to Haiti immediately. Instead, he is the lead story of the global media, the sad-eyed poster child of the remnants of a 1950s national mentality. If America continues to fight and imbibe in a nonexistent Cold War through our immigration policy, we are going to wake up in the near future with one hell of a hangover.

Bronwyn Lance is a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy think tank, in Arlington.

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