Rethinking U. S. Immigration Policy
From the looks of things, it’s all about Elian. The immigration saga has offered political intrigue and heart-tugging soap opera. Almost from the start, U.S. officials, adhering to current policy, insisted Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba. His American relatives, meanwhile, dug in for a long siege, with a unified Cuban community rallying around their resistance to this ruling. The manner in which Elian Gonzalez entered the United States and the ensuing tug-of-war between his relatives in Miami and Cuba have led many to question the guiding principles behind current U.S. immigration policy, particularly provisions enacted by the U.S. Congress to speed up the investigation process, thereby making it easier for immigration officials to deport illegal immigrants.But in truth, it’s not all about Elian. Although attention has been focused on the 6-year-old, this child’s case is inextricably linked to the fate of thousands of other children who have entered the United States from Haiti, Mexico and other nations under equally extraordinary circumstances. The difference is, those children were sent back to their home country by immigration officials following a relatively brief interview operating under current law. But the protracted case of Elian Gonzalez has stimulated public debate that should be extended to a re-examination of current immigration policy as it affects children.For decades, the United States has maintained its immigration policy of accepting Cubans who risk their lives on the sea fleeing Communist-controlled Cuba for Miami. At the same time, the United States largely rejects Haitians and others who attempt to enter the country through similar means. This policy, dating back to the beginnings of the Cold War, has been defended on the grounds that Cubans are “political” refugees, while Haitians are “economic” refugees. This distinction has been at the heart of the difference in treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees, with the former usually suffering the consequence of being immediately sent back to their homeland. The treatment of Haitian immigrants has not been changed despite vehement protest by and on behalf of the Haitian community in Miami.The Elian case raises an important question: What should be at the heart of U.S. immigration policy in considering the fate of all children, including those who arrive from Cuba and Haiti?The expression that “what is best for the child” has been used repeatedly as the guiding principle by both sides. Notwithstanding the merits of the arguments on both sides of the dispute, applying this principle more generally highlights the absurdity of the current policy, which ignores what is in the “best interest” of a Haitian child by sending that child back to an almost certain life of despair. Some proposed solutions in the Elian Gonzalez case have rightly called for changing immigration policy to widen the options beyond the narrow alternatives that restrict immigration officials under current law. Clearly, the best thing that could come out of the Elian Gonzalez case would be constructive debate with an eye toward retooling current policy. We need to make America’s moral obligation to protect children the central principle in dealing with immigrants, whether from Cuba, Haiti, Mexico or other nations.The need for “child protection” immigration policy was graphically illustrated in the early days of the Gonzalez case. When little Elian was discovered off the Florida coast, the reaction of people in the United States was to embrace this child.At about the same time, a separate incident occurred. A boatload of Haitians was intercepted before reaching the United States, and most of those on board were sent back to Haiti. Immigration officials determined that this was another routine case of returning to their home country, people who attempt to enter the United States illegally.But this routine incident took on new significance when it was revealed that a woman who was pregnant and ill among the Haitians had been allowed to remain in the United States but had been separated from her young children, who were sent back to Haiti. This revelation led to a public outcry and the eventual decision to reunite the two children with their mother in the United States.Regardless of who prevails in the Gonzales family dispute, the most significant outcome of Elian’s case may be that it shifts the focus of U.S. immigration policy away from the principle of “how quickly can we deport people” to “doing what is best for children.”The political relationship between the United States and the home country should not be the primary basis for deciding what is best for children. Hopefully, Elian Gonzalez will be the catalyst for further national debate over immigration, and this debate will lead to the creation of laws that change the treatment of thousands of children.
Marvin P. DawkinsProfessor of SociologyUniversity of Miami
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