Refugees on Rafts: 'Invasion' or Opportunity?

October 04, 1994|By VIRGINIA I. POSTREL

LOS ANGELES — ''You just can't grasp what it's like to live your life with someone telling you where you can or can't go -- what it's like not to have the simple freedom to do what you want, when you want, to go wherever you want. I'm 37 years old, and I grew up knowing nothing but East Germany and knowing I would never know anything else of the world. When I stood in front of the Wall that night, I cried like a baby. I couldn't stop. My dream, my real fantasy, is to go to America. I want to water-ski in Florida.''

''Sigrid,'' quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 17, 1989

Los Angeles. -- Who would have thought the end of history would be so literal? That, five years after the Wall came down, no one would remember how it happened or what it meant? That, five years after the Wall came down, its fall would be as meaningless to the president of the United States as the Monroe Doctrine is to the typical 10th-grader?

Five years is not a long time, even in the life of Bill Clinton. But there are 30,000 Cuban refugees behind barbed wire in the sweltering sun of Guantanamo Bay who can testify that President Clinton does not know the meaning of the Berlin Wall. And that he does not know why it fell.

Ever eager to pretend he is John Kennedy, Mr. Clinton this year traveled to Berlin and declared: ''Berlin ist Frei'' (Berlin is free). ''The Berlin Wall is gone,'' he said. ''Now we must decide what we will build in its place.'' He has decided. Faced with his own Cuban ''crisis,'' he has successfully begged Fidel Castro to build a Wall in the Caribbean.

Bill Clinton is afraid, above all else, of political defeat. Mr. Castro has played masterfully to that fear, forcing a change in three decades of U.S. immigration policy and shoring up his government's waning legitimacy in the process. He knows that Mr. Clinton is terrified of Cuban refugees. They are to him what Willie Horton is to Michael Dukakis -- scapegoats for political defeat. Mr. Clinton blames violence at an Arkansas refugee camp in part for his traumatic gubernatorial re-election loss. To him the 1980 Mariel boatlift will always be the Mariel disaster. U.S. immigration policy is driven by fear of ''another Mariel.''

But the Mariel disaster is a myth. Of the 125,000 Cubans who fled Cuba in 1980, maybe as many as 5,000 -- a mere 4 percent of the total -- were prisoners and mental patients Mr. Castro wanted to get rid of. Of those, the U.S. government is seeking to repatriate 1,500, slightly more than 1 percent of the total.

This tiny fraction is constantly cited as evidence that Mariel was a disaster. In fact, South Florida absorbed the refugees with some adjustment pains but without long-term trauma. Research by Princeton economist David Card suggests that the influx of Mariel refugees didn't even drive down wages or raise unemployment among existing Miami residents. Instead, the newcomers increased the area's overall wealth. Human beings are valuable, even in crass monetary terms; they produce as well as consume.

The Clinton administration's policy denies that value. And so it has built at Guantanamo the perfect monument to the linked ideas of welfare statism and anti-immigrant nationalism. It has seized people with family and ethnic support networks in the United States, with tremendous courage and initiative, and -- based on the record of earlier Cuban refugees -- with a high likelihood of self-reliance and low chance of welfare dependency. And it has imprisoned them in a mini welfare state, where their basic physical needs are met but where they are to remain permanently alienated from the Americans who foot the bill.

The cost in lives is obvious, the cost in money rarely reported. One Pentagon estimate pegs the start-up expense at $100 million, plus $20 million a month for 45,000 refugees. If President Clinton wants to ''end welfare as we know it,'' he could start by releasing these would-be workers into the Miami economy, freeing them to create wealth instead of living off the taxpayers.

As Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, executive director of Miami's Catholic Community Service and a 35-year veteran of refugee work, told the Los Angles Times: ''These are the risk-takers, willing to sacrifice today to have a better tomorrow. They make the best possible additions to a free-enterprise system.''

The open society is an anathema to welfare-statists, and equally foreign to the immigration foes who have relentlessly repeated for at least a decade that the free movement of individuals poses a threat to ''national sovereignty.'' Refugees on rafts, they say, constitute an ''invasion.'' Treating families fleeing tyranny as though they were armies spreading tyranny has perverse consequences. It warps our sense of America -- of what a free country represents -- and of the crucial difference between individuals and governments. And it warps our foreign policy.

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