If the Haitians Were Irish

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

December 07, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

"Economic refugee.'' Suppose the Irish landing here in themid-1800s had been hit with that brickbat after the potato rust devastated their island home?

Some 22,000 Haitians fleeing the disintegration of their country over the last decade have been struck with that sobriquet and sent home. Had this happened to the Irish, America might never have had the fighting spirit that makes Notre Dame so proud. It BTC might never have developed its diocesan schools, described by so many non-Catholics as innately superior to the public schools they desert.

Black descendants of the out-migrants moving into American cities after the Civil War might say that also would have prevented the racial violence with which Irish immigrants blocked their forbears' entry into the economic mainstream, too. But that is another story.

What's interesting here is the ability of this new designation to bar the doorway the Statue of Liberty still proclaims to the world: Give me your poor, your tired masses . . . Perhaps there should be an addendum -- Haitians need not apply. A similar phrase once told the Irish they were unwelcome respondents to ads for jobs. Maybe the 6,500-plus Haitians whose rickety boats were ''interdicted'' while making for Miami and who were shuffled off instead to holding camps at Guantanamo Navy Base will be able to understand their status if explained in terms of the Irish.

In any case, Irish immigrants have long bypassed Anglo Saxon attempts of to keep them out of the good life. Under the Immigration Act of 1990, passed with critical support of Irish-Americans in the Congress, there now is a preferential quota for the Irish. Another is for ''adversely affected'' Europeans who want to come here but are not refugees and have no relatives to anchor their claims like the Southeast Asians, Koreans and Chinese joining Latin Americans in making this a new era of immigration.

Will Haitians ever get their turn?

What has happened to them so far is almost beyond belief. The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize during the '80s pointing out the unfairness of their treatment and Congress amended the 1990 Immigration Act to permit Haitians to come here under ''temporary protected status'' until the political affairs of their country can be more lawfully settled.

The Bush administration, cited by some observers as mindful of the anti-Haitian backlash that helped scuttle Jimmy Carter's 1980 re-election, has declined to invoke that amendment. But how can a racist backlash deter a White House so determined to be ''color-blind'' it is willing to trample widespread dissent to fight ''preferences'' that keep white Americans from winning minority scholarships?

Let's get back to the Irish. Their rapid immigration brought America many benefits in addition to educational advances. Nobody seemed to believe Irish children could learn at the time, until their mass exodus to the new Catholic schools their parents founded, but that's another story, too. What's important is the energy Irish immigrants and others after them put into building their own American Dream once they settled in.

Caribbean Islanders have American Dreams, too. Take a ride to Brooklyn, New York, to Crown Heights and Flatbush, if you don't believe it. There, you'll see commercial strips revitalized by Jamaican, Barbadian and yes, Haitian shopkeepers. You'll see homes renovated, whole neighborhoods turned around from the sure descent into urban slums everyone expected when white European immigrant families moved out.

Visit the fairs held in Baltimore and Washington by Caribbean groups. Haitians are not as numerous as Jamaicans and Barbadians, but that has as much to do with the careful policy of exclusion that sent those 22,000 boat people away as any lack of enthusiasm for coming. What you'll see is that, stronger than nearly every other black American group, Caribbean Islanders believe in entrepreneurship.

The Haitians are finally getting attention to their rough treatment the U.S. government and the best that can be said of the plan to pack them into Cuban camps is that attorneys skilled in refugee issues can now visit them.

Some 25 percent of other refugee groups are ultimately found to be fleeing political repression and allowed to stay, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported, but only 1 or 2 percent of Haitians make it through the maze. That's shameful in a country that still celebrates Miss Liberty's message, still damns the British over Vietnamese boat people and still maintains the economic sanctions that help turn Haitians into ''economic refugees.'' Time for a change.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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