Saturday, November 28, 2015

Refugees are knocking. Let 'em in.

Stew and I have just returned from a one-week drive through the immensity known as Texas, where we visited relatives of mine in Houston and in Austin—all of whom, like me, came from Cuba as refugees.

Our visit coincided with the media and political furor against Syrian refugees, who've been battered and demonized mostly by Republican presidential candidates playing a xenophobic game of "can you top this?". Trump has talked about registering all Muslims in the U.S., or perhaps shutting down some of their mosques. Carson compared violent Muslim extremists to rabid dogs, while Huckabee likened some refugees to rotten peanuts.

Not to be left out of this Islamophobic conga line, some thirty state governors have vowed not admit refugees from Syria, even though governors have no immigration say-so whatsoever and, barring the construction of Berlin Walls along state lines, Syrians could take a bus from say, Minnesota to Wisconsin.

Most curious of all are Rubio and Cruz's tirades against admitting Syrian refugees: Their own parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Cuba, a fact one would think should engender a more generous attitudes toward the latest bunch of desperate human beings
María, the youngest refugee in my family, lives in Austin.
fleeing persecution and economic misery. (I particularly resent Cruz, who reminds me of Al Lewis, who played Grandpa in The Munsters).

Indeed, since Castro rose to power in 1959, over a million Cubans have been admitted to the U.S. under special policies, protections and programs not generally afforded to refugees from other countries.

I arrived in the U.S. in 1962 under a program called Peter Pan that was part humanitarian gesture part Cold War propaganda, and allowed fourteen thousand Cuban minors into the country with only a "visa waiver"—in effect no visa requirements at all except the most cursory "come on in" paperwork from the U.S. State Department. In 1970 I became an American citizen.

When I arrived I stayed at a refugee camp outside of Miami for two months before moving in with an uncle in New York. Thousands of Peter Panners were scattered throughout the country, to American homes, orphanages and pretty much anyone who would take them. Many grew up to be rich and famous, a few reported sexual and physical abuse at the hand of their "sponsors."

I wish America were willing to extend if only a portion of the kindness given to Peter Pan kids to the tens of thousands of Syrian children all over the Middle East, Europe, and who knows where, trying to escape the terror and misery choking their home countries.
My second cousin, Adrián, who now lives in Houston, and his family—all refugees—were admitted to the U.S. in 2000 through another peculiar avenue: a visa lottery held by the U.S. embassy in Havana.

It's been a great deal for Adrián—and America. He's a thin, ambitious, high-energy guy, about thirty-years old, who since his arrival has earned a degree in chemical engineering, an M.B.A. and is taking night classes in finance. He works for Exxon-Mobil in Houston. His wife expects to become a registered nurse by year's end. Meanwhile, Adrián's brother, became a pharmacist and works for Walgreens in Miami.

My second cousins in Austin arrived to the U.S. more recently; Julio, the head of the family, arrived early last year, and his wife Odette, and two daughters, one eight years old, the other fifteen, got to Austin just four months ago.

They all arrived through another Cuban quirk in U.S. immigration law called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. In short, if you're Cuban and somehow get to set foot in America somehow or other—off a boat in Florida or through the U.S. border with Mexico—bingo, you're in. After a year-long "parole" you're entitled to U.S. residency and all the perks that come with it, including citizenship in five years.

The Austin clan worked with a Cuban connection in Cancún, Mexico, who has set up a lucrative business based on the dry-foot provision of American immigration law. Say what you will, Cubans are nothing if not enterprising. The Cancún group charges a hefty fee, to which I contributed three thousand dollars, and for that you get a Mexican working permit that gets you out of Cuba.

After a brief respite in Mexico for a Corona and a taco, the facilitators take you to the U.S. border, give you some coins that get you through the turnstile—and you're in America. Julio came through the El Paso crossing, the rest of the family through McAllen, Texas.

The gang's all here: Odette, Julio, and María, 8, Ana, 15. 
Since his arrival in Austin, where he stayed with friends, Julio, a thirty-something, soft-spoken, gentle-faced guy with sparse hair, has worked—and worked and worked—installing drywall. It's back-breaking work, he says, particularly during Texas's broiling summers, but in addition he moonlights a few days a week as a cook, which was his original line of work in Cuba.

His wife Odette, a dermatologist back home, is exploring coursework to find some medical-type job, probably as a phlebotomist or a nurse's aide. The two girls are attending school. Julio is working to either get a license to drive a truck, a lucrative job, or save enough money to buy the tools to become an independent drywall contractor, which also pays more. There's already talk of buying a small house instead of wasting money on rent.

This gang, as their Houston counterparts, are American Dream-bound. I have no doubts.

Indeed, Cubans have had amazingly good luck at the immigration roulette compared to other national groups, such as Haitians and now Syrians.

For sure, Cubans are far more inconspicuous and "blendable" than the Syrians, most of whom are Muslim, some wearing exotic gear such as hijabs and kufi hats.

Syrians also suffer from the Muslim connection to terrorism, most recently in Paris.

Except that until recently Cuba and the U.S. have had a fractious relationship too, to say the least. Since 1982 until this year, Cuba was a member of the elite "State Sponsors of Terrorism" club at the U.S. State Department, thanks to Castro's annoying support of anti-American governments and guerrilla insurgencies worldwide, from Angola to Nicaragua.

Then, in 1982, there was the immigration debacle known as the Mariel boatlift which brought approximately 125,000 Cubans—some of them convicts or mentally ill folk—to the U.S. For further details, ask former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who lost a reelection bid in part because of his mishandling of riots and looting by Marielitos housed at an Army barracks in Arkansas formerly used to detain German prisoners of war during World War II.  

For better or for worse, though, Cubans have kept on coming, about 1.1 million as of 2013, with nothing like the vetting now required of Syrians.

During the past two years, the U.S. has admitted only 1,800 Syrian refugees, half of them children and one quarter people over sixty years old. In fact, the screening process so thorough that it takes eighteen months to two years for a Syrian refugee application to be approved, if ever.

Some Republicans in Congress, while proclaiming not to be anti-Muslim, want to pile on so many entry requirements that a prospective Syrian refugee would have to explain the theory of relativity while doing the rhumba before getting a refugee visa. In other words, forget it.

Cubans certainly have been an industrious bunch, in part transforming Miami from a ramshackle retirement destination into a glittering vacation mecca with a Latin flavor. But most important, Cubans have learned to develop and use political muscle, with seven Cuban-Americans in Congress at the moment, including senators Rubio and Cruz. Until recently Miami was an obligatory stop for presidential candidates to present their anti-Castro credentials to the Cuban gerontocracy in order to win the Cuban vote—and Florida.

Muslims in the U.S. instead are now terrified by the backlash largely instigated by Republican presidential candidates post the Paris terrorist attacks.

That's a shame both for them and for the U.S. When I see boatloads of Syrian refugees I don't see terrorists although there might be one aboard. Far more likely I see folks who could become another Adrián or Julio, if given a chance. It's a risk worth taking.

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Grandpa for the
U.S. Senate?

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