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Posted November 20, 2002
Treat all migrants under the same rules

Washington makes immigration policy, South Florida lives it. This is where the stolen planes land, the smugglers' boats drop off their human cargo and, ever so often, an overloaded Haitian boat runs aground and hundreds of people jump off to make a dash for freedom. It makes for great pictures on TV and a continuous and unhealthy tension between various segments of our community (.

Virtually all 235 Haitians who waded ashore Oct. 29 near the Rickenbacker Causeway are subject to the Immigration and Naturalization Service's new ''expedited removal process.'' They're fighting it by seeking political asylum, a real long-shot.

According to the Justice Department, of the 4,322 Haitians who asked for political asylum in 2001, just 357 received it. Now, under new and tougher INS rules published in the Federal Register Nov. 13, if any of the 235 Haitians at Krome reach the ''credible fear'' threshold, they'll be held behind bars pending a final ruling. The new guidelines also guarantee that few will ever get a chance to see a lawyer.

Contrast that to the kid-glove treatment given to the eight Cubans who stole a bulky old Russian cargo plane Nov. 11 and flew to Key West. While they were questioned more closely and held longer than most newly arrived Cubans, the eight eventually were released. ''Aside from the way they arrived,'' a high-ranking INS official told me a day after they arrived, ``it's just a routine case.''

Routine, yes, but also wrong, unfair and unjust. Here's why.

The great majority of Cubans fleeing the island are economic, not political, refugees and that has been true for years. Consider the comment of a Miami relative of one of the eight who fled Cuba: ``They weren't dying of hunger. They just wanted liberty and to be free of the hypocrisy that they face every day.''


Note that these eight weren't part of the Varela Project, hadn't flown the Cuban flag upside down as Oscar Elías Biscet did and hadn't published a political manifesto as Marta Beatriz Roque and her group have done. Nope, these Cubans simply left for a better life with civil and political freedoms.

Who can blame them? But there are millions of people around the world who want the same thing. Those who are serious about coming to the United States as permanent residents apply for visas and make their best case to get one. It generally takes years. For Cubans, all it takes is a few thousand dollars to pay a smuggler or having a family member with access to a plane, boat or raft. Thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, all Cubans have to do is get here; a year and a day later, they're automatically granted permanent residency.

If that weren't enough, the United States hands out 20,000 visas annually to Cubans so they can emigrate legally, plus 757 additional visas distributed last year through a lottery for Cubans without relatives here.

And then there's the ''wet foot/dry foot'' policy, in effect since 1995, that lets any Cuban stay who reaches U.S. soil through any and all means. This policy makes no sense, if it ever did. The Castro regime says that ''wet foot/dry foot'' provides an incentive for Cubans to flee and, in this instance, it is right.

In the meantime, we're keeping Haitians and everyone else in INS detention -- that is, prison -- to prevent a mass migration. Besides, the Bush administration says, Haitians are fleeing a country that has a democratically elected leader. Yeh, so democratic that we are holding up more than $100 million in humanitarian aid until Haiti fixes its screwed-up congressional elections and cuts back on graft and corruption.

I've spent a good deal of time reporting from both Cuba and Haiti; both countries are awful in their own way. But the U.S. gripe with Jean-Bertrand Aristide is nothing compared to the one it has with Fidel Castro. Ergo, the Cuban Adjustment Act and all the other policies outlined above.

They made sense after our country's shameful failure at the Bay of Pigs, after the Cuban Missile Crisis and maybe for a decade thereafter when Cubans who fled the island might have been jailed or executed had they returned. But for a long time and for the vast majority of Cuban migrants, those policies no longer make sense.

Here's a radical proposal: Rescind the Cuban Adjustment Act. End the wet foot/dry foot provision. Make one immigration standard for every foreigner seeking political asylum who reaches a U.S. embassy or shows up on our doorstep. Prove that you'll be persecuted, harassed, jailed or killed if you're sent back to your country.

Prove it, and you're in. If you can't, you're outta here. One standard for everyone. Including Cubans. mputney@click10.com.

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