Refugees in the Back Yard

May 16, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- The president has been accused of covert (if unconscious) racism in his reluctance to admit to our shores Haitian refugees (who are black), though Cuban refugees were earlier admitted in large numbers.

What few people realize is that Mr. Clinton has reason to feel chary even about Cubans, at least in any large numbers. His sensitivity to complaints from local officials, in Florida and elsewhere, about the influx of people without jobs or homes or places to put them, comes from his own tough experience.

When Mr. Clinton was serving his first term as governor, he was presented with federal action that placed thousands of Cuban ''boat people'' in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. President Carter's administration had to move these refugees out of overcrowded and understaffed staging areas in Florida.

Arkansans were not happy about this flood of people into the federal facility, but Mr. Clinton supported President Carter, his fellow Southern governor in the White House, and promised complete cooperation.

But then, in May of 1980, when Messrs. Carter and Clinton both faced re-election races, the Cubans rioted, resentful of their detention in what seemed to them more like a prison than the promised land they had been seeking. About 350 of them escaped from Fort Chaffee and were loose in the countryside. The military authorities at the base said they had no police power to capture non-criminals off the federal grounds. The local and state police said they did not have the resources to hunt down the escapers. Governor Clinton had to call out the National Guard. On June 4, another riot broke out in the camp, and 200 fugitives had to be driven back inside.

Residents in the area had panicked over the strangers in their midst, and President Carter's popularity sank precipitously in Arkansas. But Governor Clinton became more popular as he criticized the military officers of the base. His mobilizing of the National Guard had looked decisive.

In August, however, the government announced that 10,000 more refugees were being sent to Fort Chaffee. Mr. Clinton could not join the outcry against the president, since he felt that would jeopardize Mr. Carter in his campaign against Ronald Reagan. At this point, Mr. Carter's unpopularity began to rub off on Governor Clinton.

Mr. Clinton's opponent that year, Frank White, used against him the alliterative slogan ''Cubans and Cartags'' (Governor Clinton had increased the licensing fee on the latter). Mr. Clinton would partly ascribe his 1980 loss to the president's refusal to hold off on the second dispatch of Cubans while the first contingent was still in a semi-riotous condition.

So President Clinton has good reason to fear repeating Mr. Carter's role in forcing refugees upon local officials. On the other hand, this sensitivity should have made him less breezy in the 1992 presidential campaign when he complained about the arrest of Haitians on the high seas and (at least implicitly) indicated he would accept refugees unless an equitable situation could be worked out in their homeland.

As often happens with Mr. Clinton, it is less his present action than his earlier promises that look blameworthy. He is optimistic in promise and realistic-to-pessimistic in performance. That is a natural human trait, but he seems to have more than the usual share of it.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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