January 22, 2006 -- President Bush's announcement that he plans to meet with Cuban-American leaders to discuss U.S. policy for Cuban migrants couldn't be more timely. Bush's move follows outrage over news that the Coast Guard returned 15 Cubans who thought they'd arrived safely in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
Gov. Jeb Bush was vocal in his disapproval, and then came a much-publicized hunger strike by Ramon Sanchez, president of the Cuban activist group Democracy Movement. Sanchez ended his 11-day strike Wednesday, after he was notified of the meeting. U.S. policy is that Cuban refugees who "touch U.S. soil, bridges, piers or rocks" get to stay in America, while those intercepted at sea are returned to Castroland.
Unfortunately for the 15 who reached Old Seven Mile Bridge, its unattended state has left it eroded and disconnected from land. The Coast Guard used this to justify immediately sending the refugees back.
"Because they reached an old bridge and not a new bridge, there's a judgment they didn't reach American soil? The semantics used to return these men and women — who have risked so much to reach freedom and are now returned to an uncertain future — are an embarrassment," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), himself a Cuban immigrant.
This "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy for Cuban refugees was adopted in 1994 after Castro's encouragement of a mass exodus. Following Coast Guard's absorption into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, attempts to intercept Cuban immigrants at sea have skyrocketed.
More than 2,500 Cubans were intercepted at sea last year, the Coast Guard reports — roughly double the number for 2004.
If the overt determination to minimize the refugee flow wasn't embarrassing enough, the consequences of it certainly warrant some red-faced reappraisal: Last year, at least 39 deaths were blamed on zealous blockading of American shores from Cubans.
The senselessness was on conspicuous display last fall, when Coast Guard boats faced off with a homemade metal vessel carrying 10 Cuban men. The Coast Guard tried to stop the craft from coming ashore by spraying it with a firehose and using a rope to stall its engine. This maritime showdown was broadcast live on Florida TV, to the shock of many.
Famously patriotic and fiercely anti-communist, Cuban immigrants are just the type of new Americans the Customs Service and Border Patrol should be recruiting — not turning away. And what, after all, is so terrible about unfettered Cuban immigration? Isn't it inescapable that the larger America's Cuban population — and the greater their communication channels with families stuck in Cuba — the greater difficulty Castro will have retaining his Stalinist stranglehold?
Indeed, why not replace America's "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy with one that attempts to wholesale expropriate Cuba's entire freedom-loving population?
Focusing on shepherding immigrants who actually like America. Now there's a sensible immigration reform.