Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy

Article excerpt

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. …