"They take our jobs"
and 20 other myths about immigration
by Aviva Chomsky (Beacon Press, 2007)


Since World War II, U.S. law has provided for certain would-be immigrants to be granted special rights as refugees. Despite the folklore (repeated in the citizenship exam) that "the Pilgrims came to America to gain religious freedom' and the Statue of Liberty inscription welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," prior to World War II the country in fact had no immigration provisions at all for refugees. Although the admission of refugees since then is often thought of as a humanitarian policy, its character has been much more political than humanitarian. The vast majority of the three million refugees admitted to the country since 1945 have been from just three countries: Cuba, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union.' For the United States, "refugee" has generally meant "refugee from Communism." From 1965 until 1980, this definition was actually written into the law.

During the 1930s, President Roosevelt clung resolutely to the established quota system as a reason for not opening the doors of the United States to those trying to flee Hitler's Germany.' At the end of the war, the Allies struggled to figure out what to do with some one million displaced persons in the zones they occupied. The United States finally enacted the Displaced Persons Act (DPA), which allowed 205,000 refugees to be admitted between 1948 and 1950. The refugees would be charged against future years' quotas, instead of having to wait until quota spaces became available.

Provisions of the 1948 DPA also limited the ability of Jewish refugees to take advantage of it, although the 195o renewal, which allowed another 200,000 displaced persons to enter, this time above the existing quota system, did enable some 80,000 Jewish refugees into the country. "Refugee" status was also granted to at least several thousand Nazi collaborators under the acts.4 "Only a minority of those admitted ... were Hitler's victims," concludes one analysis. "A larger number were members of groups that had supported the Third Reich or benefited from it ... [In addition,] more than 70 percent ... were refugees from the USSR and Eastern Europe."

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the attorney general's office invoked its ability to "parole" thousands of Cubans who left the island. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act created a special legal situation just for Cubans: any Cuban who had been present for a year could be automatically granted legal permanent residence. Not only that, but a gamut of federal assistance programs facilitated Cubans' settlement in the United States.

For refugees from the neighboring island of Haiti, the U.S. extended a very different kind of welcome. Over the course of the 1970s thousands of Haitians fled the growing repression of the Duvalier dictatorship there and sough t asylum in the United States. Many came on small rafts and homemade boats. By mid-1978 some six thousand to seven thousand cases had piled up before the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) office in Miami, as the office hesitated to act on them. After all, Duvalier was a U. S. ally wouldn't it be contradictory to admit that his government was creating political refugees?

In July of that year, the INS intelligence division offered a blanket opinion that Haitians should be considered "economic," not political, refugees. To deter future migration, the INS enforcement office advised that Haitians be detained upon arrival, denied work permits, and be processed and expelled as quickly as possible. Under the new Haiti Program untrained officers began carrying out forty rapid fire asylum interviews in a day. Over four thousand applications were processed under the program, and every one was denied.'

It was not until the Refugee Act of 1980 that the United States finally created a refugee policy that conformed in United Nations standards of treating equally all people facing political persecution. Even though the United States had I signed the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 Protocol defining refugees, its own policy remained a Cold War polio n that applied only to refugees from Communist countries.

It didn't take long for the new Refugee Act to be tested. The stream of Haitian refugees continued, and only weeks after President Carter signed the law, thousands of Cuba refugees began arriving on the shores of South Florida. After a large group of Cubans occupied the Peruvian embassy in Havana demanding the right to emigrate to the United States, Fidel Castro reversed a long-standing policy of restricting emigration by sea and announced that those who wanted to leave were welcome to do so. Between April Old September of 198o, some 15,000 Cubans departed, in what became known as the Mariel Boatlift, after the town from which many set sail.

Cuban immigrants arriving through the Mariel Boat-lift were universally accepted as "political" refugees, while Haitians fleeing the violence of the Duvalier dictatorship at the same moment were denied refugee status, under the argument that they were leaving because of the economic devastation of the country. "Photographs of shirtless black refugees huddled aboard barely seaworthy craft evoked times buried deep in the American collective mind. Like the slave ships of yore, these boats also brought a cargo of black laborers, except that this time, they came on their own initiative, and this time, nobody wanted them. Still more pathetic were those black bodies washing ashore Florida's pristine beaches when their craft did not make it."'

In September 1981, President Reagan announced that Haitian immigrants posed a "serious national problem detrimental to the interests of the United States." He negotiated an agreement with the Duvalier dictatorship that led the Coast Guard to block immigration by patrolling Haitian waters and return all ships before they could reach .S. territory.' No agreement like this existed anywhere else in the world. By the end of 199o, 23,000 Haitians had been stopped at sea under the new policy, and only 8 of these were granted asylum.

In one particularly glaring case, in July 1991 a large Haitian boat filled with refugees stopped to rescue some Cubans whose boat had wrecked at sea. When the Coast Guard intercepted them, the Haitian ship was returned with its passengers to Haiti—except for the Cubans, who were brought to Florida."

At the heart of the policy divide between the warm welcome for Cubans and the cold one for Haitians was a logical leap that was rarely articulated. U.S. policy was based on the premise that in Communist countries, economic difficulties were the result of government policies, and were therefore political. Thus the Cubans who left in the early 1960s when faced with the threat of losing their property or their lifestyle, or those who left in the 1980s out of exhaustion from economic hardship, were political refugees: they were fleeing the policies of Cuba's Communist government.

In a capitalist country like Haiti, however, U. S. policy was based on the idea that poverty was merely an economic, not a political problem. Even Haitians who clearly faced direct political persecution—like Solivece Romet, who described his torture at the hands of the government-sponsored Tontons Macoutes and showed INS agents his scars—were classed as economic, rather than political refugees.12 Those who made the mistake of telling INS agents that they intended to work if admitted to the United States were likewise doomed to the "economic" category and denied entry.

These events were eerily recapitulated in the summer of 1994, when a growing economic crisis in Cuba, including massive power outages, provoked another exodus from the island, coinciding with increasing desperation and repression by the military government that had overthrown President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. The September 1991 coup in Haiti had provoked another huge wave of refugees in the last months of the year. Hundreds were dying in unseaworthy vessels. In November, amidst growing protests by Congress and human rights groups, a federal judge ordered the Bush administration to stop its long-standing policy of repatriating fleeing Haitians.

Bush refused, however, to allow the refugees into the United States. Instead, ships intercepted at sea were taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. "Stories in the mainstream U.S. media continued to portray Guantánamo as a haven for refugees. Haitians, including the Haitian print and radio media, tended to refer to the base as a 'concentration camp,' a 'prison,' or, at best, 'a detention facility.'

The rationale for detaining and then repatriating the Haitians on Guantánamo rather than giving them the right to seek asylum in the United States was a curious one, but one that would become familiar later on. "While conceding that the Haitians are treated differently from other national groups who seek asylum in the United States, the Government claimed that the U.S. Constitution and other sources of U.S. and international law do not apply on Guantánamo." The U.S. Refugee Act of 198o, and international law, were thus conveniently dispensed with, to the outrage of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In May 1992, with the camp overflowing, Bush reverted to the old Haiti Program: Haitians picked up at sea would once again be returned to Haiti. In the words of medical anthropologist, physician, and Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer, "Haiti resembled more and more a burning building with no exits."

When President Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, he reversed Bush's policy of returning Haitians and reopened the Guantánamo camp. What he did not expect was a flood of Cuban rafters in the summer of 1994.

On August 18, 1994, with 21,000 Haitians in the makeshift camp, President Clinton did the unprecedented: he announced that Cubans picked up at sea, instead of being admitted to the United States, would join the Haitians at Guantánamo. "In a stroke, Clinton turned Cubans into the legal equivalent of Haitians," the Washington Post noted in wonderment." By the end of 1994 some 50,000 refugees were housed there, at a cost of $5oo,000 to $1 million a day.

Although the treatment was ostensibly equal, in fact it was not. In September 1994, U.S. troops occupied Haiti, and in November the massive repatriation of Haitians began, over the vociferous objections of immigrant and human rights organizations. Meanwhile in October, humanitarian evacuations began bringing Cubans from the camp into the United States. By the end of 1994, three-fourths of the Haitians had been "voluntarily" returned to Haiti, and in January 1995, those who refused were forcibly repatriated.

In May 1995, the Clinton administration opened the way to admission for the 20,000 Cubans remaining in the camp. Only a few hundred Haitians were still in Guantánamo: most were unaccompanied children who had relatives or sponsors in the United States, pleading for them to be allowed in. Right as the doors were opened for Guantánamo's Cuban detainees, the repatriation of the Haitian children began. "Many of the children sent back to Haiti have been left to fend for themselves in squalid and dangerous conditions. Some are destitute and living in the street."

The 1995 agreements that allowed the Cubans in did lead to the first small retreat from the welcome provided by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. Clinton agreed to work with Castro to stem the tide. The new "wet foot, dry foot" policy announced in May 1995 allowed any Cuban who reached U.S. shores to continue to receive the preferential treatment of the 1966 act. Those picked up at sea, however, would be returned to Cuba. The United States also agreed to implement an orderly distribution of immigrant visas through its U.S. Interests Section in Havana (which is part of the Swiss embassy), to discourage people from seeking the dangerous sea route to immigration.

The case of refugees from Central America in the 198os was similarly politicized.22 After the 1979 Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, the right-wing governments of El Salvador and Guatemala stepped up their campaigns against leftist guerrillas and their supposed civilian supporters. In El Salvador, the FMLN rebels succeeded in gaining control of significant portions of the country's territory. Military raids against civilians in rebel-held territories, in addition to military and right-wing death squad repression against unarmed religious, social justice, and human rights activists, led to a mass exodus from the country.

In Guatemala, the smaller guerrilla groups operated mainly in isolated areas of the country, but the government and right-wing armed reaction was, if anything, more vicious. Hundreds of indigenous villages were destroyed in a scorched-earth policy that has been described as a genocide. Millions were internally displaced, and another million fled the country. Over the course of the 198os, up to a million Salvadorans and Guatemalans sought refuge in the United States.

Because the United States opposed the revolutionary government in Nicaragua, and supported the right-wing governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, its response to refugees from the three countries could not have been more different. Between 1984 and 199o, 45,000 Salvadorans, 48,000 Nicaraguans, and 9,500 Guatemalans requested asylum; 26 percent of the Nicaraguan applications were approved, while only 2.6 percent of those submitted by Salvadorans and 1.8 percent of those submitted by Guatemalans were granted.23 (Meanwhile, applicants from countries that the U.S. government considered enemies were approved at far higher rates: for Syrians, it was 73 percent; for people from the People's Republic of China, 52 percent.24) Thousands of refugees were arrested at the border and returned to Mexico without having the chance to even apply for asylum.

The Central American situation spawned a significant solidarity movement in the United States. Activists sought to end U.S. military support for the Contras in Nicaragua and for the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. They worked with religious, human rights, and social justice organizations in Central America. Thousands of Americans traveled to Central America to learn firsthand about the situation, and to support the movements for social change there. They also created the Sanctuary Movement inside the United States, to provide refuge and aid for the thousands who came fleeing the violence there.

In 1985, a group of over eighty religious and refugee organizations brought suit against the federal government for unfairly applying its own laws regarding refugees in denying asylum applications by Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees. Because of the leading role of the American Baptist Church, it became known as the ABC lawsuit. The decision in favor of the refugees, in December 199o, halted all deportations and granted Salvadorans and Guatemalans temporary legal status while they were allowed to resubmit their applications.

Despite the ABC decision against the INS, and another 1990 ruling against the INS for "engag[ing] in a pattern and practice of pressuring or intimidating Salvadorans" to discourage them from applying for asylum, the 1996 immigration reforms imposed new obstacles for asylum applicants. For people already in the United States, a time limit was imposed: if they remained in the country for a year without filing an application, they lost their chance altogether. For those who arrived at the border and requested asylum, under the new rules they would either be denied summarily by whatever immigration agent they happened to encounter at the border, or they would be placed in detention while their case was investigated.

Except Cubans. Even with the 1995 modifications, the Cuban Adjustment Act remained in place. To this day, Cubans are not detained, and they don't have to prove a well-founded fear of persecution. Like most pre-1924, immigrants, they just have to arrive here and say they want to come in.