News and views from the award-winning author of the Class H Trilogy: AMERICA LIBRE, HOUSE DIVIDED and PANCHO LAND

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Was Elian an illegal immigrant?

With Elian Gonzalez back in the headlines, I thought it would be a good time to reprise an essay I wrote two years ago...

In the fall of 1999, five-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found floating in an inner tube off the Florida coast by a pair of U.S. fishermen. The child was one of only three survivors from a group of fourteen Cubans who had braved the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits aboard a homemade aluminum boat to find a better life in the United States. Tragically, Elian’s mother was lost at sea.

We soon learned that Elian’s father was still in Cuba and wanted his son returned. This demand touched off an international custody battle that dominated headlines in the U.S. for months and became a litmus test of political ideology. Those on the right felt Elian should remain with his U.S. relatives. After all, they argued, Elian’s mother had given her life trying to reach the United States. Those on the left argued the boy should be returned to his father, regardless of ideology. Today’s immigration controversy puts this debate in a whole new light.

Suppose Elian and his mother had crossed the Rio Grande instead of the Florida Straits. Would the same people who so vehemently demanded Elian be allowed to stay in the U.S. still defend his undocumented arrival? No one aboard Elian’s jury-rigged craft had documents to legally enter the United States. They simply did what millions of others have done: They risked all they had in hopes of a better life.

Because of the U.S. rift with Fidel Castro, many see the arrival of illegal immigrants from Cuba in a different light. In a hangover from the Cold War, Cubans are still considered “political refugees” and are eligible to apply for a green card the minute they set foot on U.S. soil. No other Latin American nation enjoys this privileged status, leading one to conclude we treat our enemies better than our friends when it comes to immigration policy.

Ironically, those who scream loudest against “illegal immigration” today are in many cases the same people who supported Elian’s right to remain in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. To them I ask: Please explain the difference.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez