Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Who is responsible for the Elian Gonzalez case?

by Joseph J. Gonzalez on Apr 5, 2000

Who is responsible for the plight of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez? Fidel Castro? Bill Clinton? The Justice Department? The Cubans of Miami?

Well, if you want to hold someone responsible, then look to the Haitians. In 1994, 
the Haitians did us all a favor by exposing the "double standard" of U.S. immigration
policy. Before 1994, the U.S. government gave automatic asylum to Cuban refugees,
but not to other refugees. If  the Haitians had not challenged this double standard in 1994 while trying to leave Haiti's repression and poverty, Elian would almost certainly be on his way to U.S. citizenship today.
Before 1994, Cuban immigration was a simple matter. Any Cuban who made it out of Cuba was automatically entitled to political asylum in the United States. This special treatment for Cubans seemed fair to most Americans. After all, Fidel Castro was a Communist dictator. The United States had to open its doors to refugees from communism, Americans thought, or it could not claim moral leadership of the Free World. As a result, for more than thirty years, hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees took advantage of this special treatment. Refugees from Haiti, however, were not so fortunate. Unlike the Cubans, they had no claim to automatic asylum. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Haitian dictators persecuted Haitians as severely as Castro persecuted Cubans, and thousands of Haitians tried to flee. But the U.S. government refused to grant Haitians automatic asylum.
According to the U.S. government, Haitian refugees were fleeing poverty, not just
political repression, and so it was argued they did not deserve automatic asylum.  And
that's how it was for more than thirty years: Cuban refugees could count on special treatment, while Haitians could not. This was the double standard of U.S.
immigration policy.
Today, this is no longer the case. U.S. immigration law treats Cubans and Haitians,
for the most part, equally. Neither gets automatic asylum. If Cubans still received automatic asylum, young Elian would be the latest permanent addition to Miami's Little Havana, rather than a celebrated legal case.
The reason for this change has a lot to with the events of 1994.  In the summer of
1994, the United States was faced with a flood of immigrants from both Haiti and Cuba.  Fleeing the corrupt and violent dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, thousands of Haitians headed for the United States on crude rafts. Those who made it, or who were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, were interned in camps. By September 1994 approximately 13,000 Haitians were interned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba.
At the same time, Cuban immigrants also flooded the United States. In the summer of 1994, Fidel Castro stopped restricting immigration from Cuba. The Cubans took his cue, and thousands headed for South Florida, believing that they would receive automatic asylum. But the Clinton administration was unsure of what to do. Should all these thousands of Cubans get asylum?  Until a final decision could be reached, the U.S. government decided to hold the Cubans in camps.
By September 1994, about 20-30,000 Cubans were interned on Guantanamo and in Panama.  The Haitian and Cuban immigration problems converged on television. Both Cuban and Haitians refugees sat interned in camps. But only the Cubans stood a good chance of staying in the United States.
The American people began to question the justice of this policy: Was Castro really worse than Cedras?  Many Americans were not sure. Some African-American leaders, such as Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, accused the Clinton administration of racial discrimination against Haitians. Why give special treatment to Cubans and not Haitians? Could it be that the United States wanted only light-skinned Cuban immigrants, and not dark-skinned Haitians?
In September 1994, the Clinton administration gave in and decided to treat Cuban refugees like Haitian refugees. No longer did the United States automatically grant Cubans asylum. Instead, the U.S. Coast Guard made every effort to intercept and
return Cuban immigrants to Cuba. In place of automatic asylum, the United States agreed to admit 20,000 Cubans each year. Most of the Cubans of 1994, however, were allowed to stay in the United States. Most of the Haitians stayed as well.
The elimination of the double standard makes the case of Elian Gonzalez complex.  Before 1994, Elian would probably have been granted automatic asylum. But Clinton's changes to the immigration law, coupled with the fact that Elian is a minor child with a father living in Cuba, have made Elian both a legal and a political issue taking months to resolve.
And we have no one but the Haitians to thank for this controversy. Their desire for better lives in the United States forced our government to abandon its double standard toward refugees from dictators. At the same time, without knowing it, the Haitians created the circumstances for the "Elian Gonzalez case" — a legal and political hot potato.
Such is the law of unintended consequences.

Joseph J. Gonzalez is a faculty member in the departments of history and interdisciplinary studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and a writer for the History News Service.