The fifteen Cubans thought they had made it to the United States. In early January, they sailed in a homemade boat from Cuba and reached an old bridge on the southern tip of Florida. According to the U.S. immigration policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” Cubans who reach U.S. soil can stay. Those picked up at sea are returned to Cuba.
Unfortunately for these fifteen Cubans, the bridge they reached was derelict and partially collapsed. It was no longer connected to the Florida mainland. So, according to the U.S. government, the refugees had not technically touched U.S. soil. The Coast Guard picked them up and sent them back. It didn’t matter that Florida is Jeb Bush territory, and the Republicans depend on the votes of Cuban-Americans.
This bizarre incident is only the latest example of the hypocrisies of U.S. immigration policy. Although the Statue of Liberty famously welcomes the tired, the poor, and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the United States is very careful about who it lets into the country.
Take the case of North Koreans. The U.S. government has criticized China for returning North Korean refugees against their will to North Korea. U.S. conservatives routinely lambaste the South Korean government for not doing more on the human rights issue. But rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. government has not officially accepted any North Korean asylum seekers – even though several have applied at U.S. consulates throughout the world. South Korea, meanwhile, accepts hundreds every year.
Cubans and North Koreans come from countries deemed “evil” by the Bush administration, and still they are not welcomed to the United States. Those fleeing authoritarian regimes supported by the administration certainly don’t receive a warmer welcome. The paranoia created by 9/11 hasn’t helped matters either.
The most glaring hypocrisies, however, can be found along America’s southern border with Mexico. Although Washington consistently rails against illegal immigrants, the U.S. economy has become increasingly dependent on the work of an estimated 8 million undocumented laborers. Without these undocumented workers, U.S. crops would go unpicked. And few American citizens are willing to accept very low wages for dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors.
Unofficially, the U.S. government recognizes the important contributions of these workers. After all, it has pushed free-trade policies with Mexico and other countries that have made their small-scale agriculture unprofitable, pushed farmers off the land, and sent them north by the hundreds of thousands in search of work. Since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, the number of Mexicans coming every year to the United States (with and without documents) has nearly tripled.
Despite this unofficial encouragement of immigration flow, the U.S. authorities have officially deployed much harsher measures at the border to discourage would-be entrants. Higher walls and more frequent patrols have meant that border-crossers are taking greater risks of dying from heat stroke and dehydration. Since the imposition of the Southwest Border Strategy in 1993, according to the organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos, over 3,000 migrants have died trying to get across the border.
Establishing a system by which foreign workers have a legal means of coming to the United States – along with enforceable regulations to prevent their exploitation – would go a long way toward rationalizing U.S. immigration policy. But illegal workers don’t vote. So few politicians support their cause.
The latest bill on immigration – which passed the House in mid-December by a vote of 239 to 182 – is a case in point. In addition to new security measures at the border, the bill would criminalize not only undocumented workers but their families and their employers as well. A guest worker program supported by Democrats and moderate Republicans was dropped from the legislation.
The United States is not alone in having a shortsighted immigration policy. Japan, despite a declining population and a labor shortage, maintains a famously insular attitude. Although the European Union absorbed ten more countries in 2004, most European countries have made it very difficult for those outside Europe to gain entrance.
But these countries never claimed to be built by and for immigrants. At a time when its economy is dangerously indebted and its military dangerously over-rated, the United States has one quality indispensable for success in the global age: a multicultural population. Between 2000 and 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60 percent of the increase in the U.S. workforce came from immigrants. But it’s not just a workforce issue. U.S. multiculturalism challenges persistent racism and jingoism in American society. And a culturally diverse population, with links to countries all around the world, can help create a foreign policy that is neither imperial nor hegemonic.
Certainly the United States should support policies that raise wages worldwide and narrow the income gaps that compel workers to cross borders. In the meantime, though, America owes it to the world – and to itself – to come up with an immigration policy free of appalling hypocrisy.
Munhwa Ilbo, January 17, 2006