Cuban-American Politicians Should Remember Refugee Roots

Across the country, alarm and protest greeted news of the Trump administration’s draconian refugee ban on Friday evening. Yet in South Florida, public officials remained eerily quiet. Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, joined by Senator Marco Rubio, eventually issued statements questioning aspects of the White House’s move. But if Ros-Lehtinen was most direct — “I object,” her press release starts — her otherwise measured commentary does not compensate for the reticence of Cuban-American peers.

“International Rescue Committee Waiting Area at the Cuban Refugee Center,” ca. 1965, University of Miami Libraries Digital Exhibits, accessed January 31, 2017,

Leaders of Miami’s own Cuban refugee and immigrant hub should be outraged, not playing coy. Just two weeks ago, they blasted the Obama administration for lifting the “Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot” policy. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart objected strongly that Cubans would no longer be afforded the “presumption” of aslyum and admitted to the United States with ease.

One would expect, then, an equally energetic response when other refugees, actual visa holders, and lawful permanent residents from entire nationalities suddenly find themselves hung out to dry. Instead, Díaz-Balart lashed out in defense of the policy. He seems to have forgotten that many of those held up in immigration detention over the last few days previously passed security checks Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot entrants never had to endure.

Such doublespeak comes on the heels of Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Giménez’s decision to bow to the Trump administration’s threat to bar federal funds for so-called “sanctuary cities.” Not that the budgetary hazards for the county weren’t real. Still, the mayor acted precipitously, without exploring whether the city had legal options to fight back. To refer, moreover, to the decision as a “no-brainer” only reinforces the perception that Cuban-Americans are unsympathetic to undocumented migrants. Now that future Cuban migrants may join the undocumented ranks, such a statement reflects a political compass that is shortsighted and morally weak.

Perhaps Cuban-American elected officials need a reminder that their community, too, was once on the receiving end of nativism, if in lighter form. Just as the forces of Islamophobia bolster today’s immigration crackdown, Cubans in the United States previously faced accusations that they refused to “assimilate.” In the 1960s, Cubans were allowed open entry out of a spirit of humanitarianism wedded to the politics of Cold War. But despite privileged immigration status, signs reading “No pets, no children, no Cubans” still greeted clients entering some Miami stores.

Fast-forward to 1980, and a new, more controversial wave of Cuban migrants found itself subject to discrimination. Not only did so-called Mariel “entrants” have to fight to legalize their status; across the national landscape voices lambasted Cuban “boat people” as dangerous and degenerate. The correspondence files of then-Congressman Dante Fascell and then-Senator Lawton Chiles are full of angry, xenophobic protests from Anglo constituents. One postcard from “Save Our South Florida” — S.O.S. — labeled Miami’s latest addition a “scourge.”

A 1980 cartoon from a booklet published by FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “As many as 40,000 criminals, homosexuals, and mentally defective persons…may have come to the United States in the Mariel boat lift,” they alleged. A former Executive Director of Fair will serve the Trump administration as Chief of Staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB). From:

Finally, consider the mobilization of the Cuban-American community in 1999–2000. Outside Miami, few debate whether it was right to return Elián González back to his father in Cuba. But that Cuban-Americans mobilized impressively to defend what they perceived as his deceased mother’s wishes cannot be up for debate. In light of Cuban-Americans’ own histories of family separation, our elected representatives should speak up more forcefully when unjust policies condemn others to a similar fate.

Indeed, Cubans may be touched by President Trump’s de-facto “Muslim ban” after all. Because the White House has suspended the refugee admissions program as a whole for 120 days, in theory Cubans at risk of political mistreatment on the island have also temporarily lost an important vehicle of relief. Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot allowed every Cuban to enter with parole, regardless of migration motive. But the more stringent, now jeopardized refugee process always functioned along a separate track.

Cubans in the United States can and do disagree as to whether their unique position under U.S. immigration laws was due for revision. All, however, have felt moved by the plight of those already in transit who were caught unawares, and thus placed in limbo, by the sudden policy change. Yet until we learn to speak out as forcefully in defense of others — Muslim, Latina/o, and otherwise — as we do for ourselves, our cries for help will continue to appear self-centered. President Trump’s immigrant bashing and inhumane national origins prohibitions present a unique opportunity to show greater solidarity.

Cuban migrants en route to the United States react to the announcement of the end of the “Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot” policy. (Arnulfo Franco/AP). From:
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