by: Bonnie Wilkins Overcott
A historical look at the United State’s approach towards refugees that acts as a plea for reason and for empathy, and a call to take in those in desperate need who approach her borders …
In 1980, I worked in the Disaster Services and Service to Military Families Department of the American Red Cross in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I remember some of our staff and volunteers working at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin with refugees from Cuba. Watching the current 2018 refugee “Caravan” on the news and hearing President Trump vowing they’d never be allowed to enter the United States, I began to reminisce about the Mariel Boatlift that set forth from Cuba on April 20th, 1980.
An extensive description of the history of the Mariel Boatlift that correlates with my memories can be found on many sites online. An economic downturn and a crackdown on dissidents by Cuba’s government led to unrest. Two young Cuban writers sought asylum in the Argentine embassy in 1978, but were denied and sent to prison. In 1979, more Cubans sought asylum in the Venezuelan embassy, and then following that, the Peruvian embassy. Cuban police fired on one embassy and eventually some Cubans successfully breached the security of the Peruvian embassy. Those Peruvians refused to hand those seeking asylum over to Cuban police, so the Cuban government withdrew its security forces. More Cubans entered the embassy and eventually the assembled crowd grew to 2,000 people. Peru said they were willing to accept asylum seekers. The United States announced it would grant asylum to political prisoners and process others by normal standards.
Eventually, the crowd expanded to include 10,000 asylum seekers. Peru organized an international relief program to provide food and water and aid resettlement. Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Spain offered to help and take anyone seeking refuge. President Jimmy Carter said the United States would accept 3,500 refugees. Costa Rica agreed to provide resources to screen the immigrants.
On April 20th, Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to anyone wishing to leave. Cuban exiles in Key West and Miami hired boats to transport people to the United States. One boat carried 706 refugees. As more came, the U.S. government asked the American Red Cross and social service agencies to help. There was no talk by President Carter of turning them away. I remember news reports of how Castro was emptying his prisons and mental hospitals.
In 1980, 125,000 people sought refuge in the United States, half of whom stayed in the Miami area. Some of them were religious minorities like Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite some fear mongering, only 2.2% or 2,746 were classified as criminals and all but 478 were deported back to Cuba.
The 5,000 to 7,000 people in the “Caravan” currently traveling north through Mexico are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Cubans the United States took in around the time of the Mariel Boatlift. The Miami Herald recently analyzed the Boatlift’s effects after 38 years, finding that the 125,000 Cubans who entered the country caused stress to the infrastructure, the economy, and social service and criminal justice resources of the states that housed them. Tensions arose and there were riots in two Florida cities. Governor Bill Clinton lost his re-election bid partly because of the Mariel prisoners in his state. The Miami Herald concluded that as a result, Florida is far better able to handle an influx of refugees today than it was 38 years ago.
Some argue that immigrants take jobs from hard-working Americans. Dr. David Card, an Economist at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the Mariel Boatlift had little impact on Florida or the U.S. economy as a whole. However, President Trump and Attorney General Sessions side with Dr. George Borjas of Harvard University, a Cuban-born specialist of immigration economics. He believes the influx of Cubans in 1980 led to a large decline in wages for low-skilled local workers.” Most economists agree though that “immigrants are integral to the nation’s economic growth and have little or no effect on overall employment and earnings” for U.S. workers. They also suggest that we should make an effort to reduce the number of immigrant teens dropping out of school and start apprenticeship programs to help them gain entry into high paying trades.
Since 1975, more than 200,000 Hmong have fled Laos as refugees, and large numbers of them (90%) have settled in the United States. My home state, Minnesota, houses 60,000 of them. Initially, churches helped them get on their feet. Soon after they came, many Hmong names appeared on the honor rolls of high schools published in local newspapers. The Hmong were a rural culture and today our farmers’ markets are filled with Hmong farmers selling their organic produce. They are opening small businesses and their children are going to college.
Somalis are more recent immigrants to the United States. It’s estimated there are 85,700 now in the country. One third of that number live in Minnesota. Upon arrival, the Somali men obtained drivers’ licenses, then jobs driving cabs. I took a class at the Minneapolis Community College. The parking lot had many cabs parked there by Somalis, men and women, who were getting an education. They are an ambitious, hard working people. Many work horrendous jobs in meat-packing plants throughout Minnesota. It’s a delight to talk with them and see the women in their colorful native dress. They are involved in our democracy and running for office.
Minneapolis is no place for xenophobes. Our transit system gives instructions in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali. Flags from Norway and Sweden fly alongside the American flag in people’s yards, as well as a few Canadian, Mexican and Somali flags. The restaurant scene has vastly improved with all the Asian, Mexican and African cuisine available.
In circling back to the “Caravan,” President Trump is overtly using a group of desperate people in need to rile up rage and hate and fear among his base. A real leader would work with Central American countries and Mexico to come up with solutions to the factors causing these people to flee. A real leader would have empathy towards those unfortunate, but unimaginably determined people, chanting “USA” and “Yes we can” as they march north. They are marching towards the Promised Land. No one needs to make America great again to them — America is their dream.
How will President Trump keep them out? Shoot them at the border? Rip families apart and confiscate their children, dispersing them around the country? Hitler and the Nazi Party took children, too. First they took Jewish children, many of whom simply vanished and their parents never found out what happened to them. They took about 400,000 “Aryan” looking children from families in Eastern European and Norway, moved them to “assimilation” camps, robbed them of their identities, then gave them to loyal Nazi families to adopt and raise. Many of those alive today are still searching for their identities. As a parent, I can’t imagine anything more horrific.
Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” still remains affixed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. I hope we are still the nation that proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor…” The 5,000 to 7,000 refugees of the “Caravan” are a very manageable number for the United States to absorb. Can our federal government exhibit some empathy, meet with them, weed out any criminals, and allow those fleeing gang violence or starvation into our country? Immigrants from every corner of the earth, like my grandfather who came as an indentured servant, as well as Native people like the Navaho Code Talkers, have made America great, not a trite slogan on a hat or a president who uses hate to enrage his followers.