Other immigration issues between U.S., Cuba

January 12, 2000

LATELY, IT SEEMS that all of Miami and all of Havana are making claims that politics did not interfere with the case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy at the center of an international custody battle. Unfortunately, all the discussion around Elian has focused on the politics of emotions by trying to get people to sympathize with one ideology or another through the plight of this boy, not on the politics that created the situation he finds himself in.

If we are to learn anything from this ordeal, the debate would be best served if we began to look at the larger context. Elian's case highlights problems in immigration policies that need fixing.

On the Cuban side, the government has not been able to recover from the economic collapse of 1991 sufficiently enough to persuade its citizens to stay at home. Until the Cuban government can resolve this crisis, we will continue to see illegal rafters heading to American shores.

The United States similarly has problems with its immigration policy regarding Cuba. Because of the so-called "wet foot/dry foot" policy, which allows Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil to stay in the country, the United States gives preferential treatment to Cuban refugees over all others.

Obviously, this policy encourages Cubans to make the illegal trip to the United States, because they know if they reach land, they can stay. Though this policy was established to make it easy for political refugees from Cuba to find haven during the Cold War, it is hard to find anyone who can argue that rafters coming from Cuba today are not doing so for economic reasons.

A call for policy reform

The United States should reform its immigration policy so that it treats economic refugees from Cuba as it does all economic refugees.

While immigration policy is one part of Elian's story, there is also another angle that has not been looked at with a wider lens. At heart, this is a story about separated families. As the Cuban-American community has grown in the United States, it has all too often been willing to accept refugees from Cuba without looking at the impact their flight has had on those left behind. And too often, Cuban Americans have not been willing to leave behind politics for the sake of their families who stayed in Cuba.

As a result, Cuban families separated by distance, time and politics have begun to look like dysfunctional ones, where sons aren't raised by their fathers and spouses argue over custody of children whisked away at night.

Separating families

The trends that Elian represents now have Cubans on one side of the Florida Straits claiming that Cubans on the other cannot provide the best for their children, either because of economic privation or capitalist corruption. In all of these arguments, we have forgotten that the fragmentation caused by family separation is what harms our children, not the economic circumstances they are raised in.

U.S. policy should work to help Cuban families, not tear them apart. Cubans should not have to make a choice between living in the United States and maintaining family contact. The United States should allow Cuban Americans to return to Cuba as often as they like to see their families, not just once a year, as the policy now stands.

It should allow them to send their relatives in Cuba anything they need, in any amounts, rather than subjecting any Cuban-American aid to government supervision, restriction and regulation.

Elian's case unfortunately embodies the dilemma of Cuban families as much as it is being held prisoner to these circumstances. The U.S. government, Cuban Americans and all who have an interest in this story should realize that the hostility between Cuba and the United States will not always exist but Cuban families always will.

Anyone concerned with the well-being of Elian should not only look at how they can best help him, but they also should take steps to reunite all Cuban families separated by politics and distance so that such tragedies won't continue.

Sean Garcia, executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.

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