Now that lawyers for two deceased Cuban migrants may sue the U.S. Coast Guard in federal court, it is worth looking at migration across the Florida straits from the Coast Guard’s point of view.
The loss of Isabel Menendez, 74, and Luisa Cardentey, 60, is the latest tragic chapter in a year in which the Coast Guard has intercepted more than 2,000 Cuban migrants — more than in any year since the 1994 rafter exodus.
The Coast Guard’s primary mission is to save lives, and that is what the crew of the cutter Metompkin did on the night of Nov. 5, when the pilot of the 25-foot boat carrying 37 passengers called for assistance. The boat was taking on water in rough seas 65 miles south of Key West. The Metompkin came alongside and its crew rescued 15 passengers when the boat capsized; 22 others were thrown into the water, and all but two were rescued.
The Coast Guard deserves praise for averting a far greater tragedy. If there is to be a lawsuit, one might think it would be directed at the boat pilot who overloaded his vessel.
This incident was dramatic but not unusual, and thanks in part to U.S. policy, it is likely to be repeated. Under the “wet foot-dry foot” policy, Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba unless they qualify as a refugee by showing they would face persecution if returned home. Those who reach shore are generally released into the community within days , a practice that is permitted but not required by the Cuban Adjustment Act.
What is required by our law and morality is that America give fair hearings to potential refugees. Cuba is one of only three countries where the U.S. consulate grants refugee visas to people who have not left their country. Of the 53,818 refugees admitted to the United States last fiscal year — a stingy amount, compared to the annual average of 88,000 during the 1990s — one in nine was Cuban. Other avenues of legal migration should also be maintained.
But rather than seek a visa, many Cubans come by smuggler’s speedboat. The smuggling, the attempts at undocumented immigration and the frequent defiance of lawful Coast Guard orders are all illegal practices — but U.S. policy provides every incentive for them to continue because the migrants’ legal troubles disappear once they reach shore.
The policy also creates a risk to homeland security, because adept smugglers may carry refugees one day — and drugs or terrorists on another.
On the southwest border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged to confront this “obvious homeland security threat” by sending home “every single illegal entrant — no exceptions.” This same policy would undercut the financial incentives that keep alien smugglers in business in Florida, but it does not apply to Cuban migrants — and for electoral reasons it probably never will.
Conversely, some propose that all Cubans intercepted at sea be allowed to enter the United States freely, but this would cause even greater dangers. Cubans would head for international waters on rafts, expecting a Coast Guard rescue. Large numbers would die in the attempt. The administration would have to decide whether to allow boats to leave U.S. ports on rescue or rendezvous missions in what would quickly become a seaborne Mariel.
So the current policy toward Cuban migrants is likely to continue in all its ambiguity. But the policy does have one crystal-clear message: It tells Fidel Castro that any day of the week, he can infiltrate operatives by landing them on our beaches, where they will be welcomed in short order.
With equal clarity, it thereby tells us that the administration doesn’t take seriously its own designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Philip Peters, a State Department official during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.Copyright (c) 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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