The New York Times
January 12, 2000


Let Elián Remain Free


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The Elián González case has become a political football in the United States because we can no longer agree on who should be granted refugee status.

Suppose the circumstances had involved a woman and her young daughter who fled the small African country of Togo to prevent the daughter from having to endure the cultural rite of genital mutilation. The mother dies during transit; the daughter arrives alone in the United States and claims political asylum. The father and Togo's government quickly proclaim the father's rights to determine his daughter's future, including the right to ensure that the daughter fully participate in the ritual traditions of her native culture.

I suspect that many of those on the left, who want Elián returned to Cuba and who seem to have recently discovered the value of the family unit in raising children, would quickly shed those new-found beliefs and argue that this girl should not be returned to Togo. Many of those on the right, who want Elián to remain here but who would typically want to preserve the nuclear family, might argue that repulsive cultural traits do not necessarily entitle a person to refuge in the United States.

So the debate is driven by one fact alone: the boy is Cuban.

This case has particular poignancy for me. I was 8 years old when Fidel Castro's tanks rolled through Havana. Thousands of families, including my own, considered making the ultimate sacrifice and shipping their children off to the United States. These families knew nothing about the life that their children would have in exile and did not know if they would ever see them again. Yet they had an unshakable belief: life in the United States would be far better than life in a Communist hell.

As things turned out, my mother and I were able to leave Cuba together in 1962. But about 14,000 children migrated alone to the United States under Operation Peter Pan, a program that provided visa waivers to children under 16. Because it became extremely difficult to leave Cuba after the missile crisis, it took years for these children to be reunited with their parents.

Elián's father may be an exemplary parent.

But he cannot divulge his true aspirations. Instead, he, as well as Elián's grandparents, seem to be kept busy attending rallies where the father reads prepared speeches denouncing the American government. Those of us who lived under Cuba's Communist regime are deeply suspicious. If the father could talk freely, we suspect that he too would choose to migrate to the United States.

How can we be so presumptuous? The recently published "Black Book of Communism" documents that more than 15,000 Cubans have been murdered by the Castro regime, and that more than 100,000 people have been political prisoners. Are the liberals who so adamantly favor sending Elián back to Castro's Cuba absolutely certain that this is in Elián's interests and that this is what Elián's family wants? There is no room for error in this Solomonic decision.

George J. Borjas, a professor of public policy at Harvard, is the author of "Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy."