Let Elián Remain Free

The New York Times
January 12, 2000

By George J. Borjas

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

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

I suspect that many of those on the left, who want Elián returned toCuba and who seem to have recently discovered the value of the family unitin raising children, would quickly shed those new-found beliefs and argue thatthis girl should not be returned to Togo. Many of those on the right, whowant Elián to remain here but who would typically want to preserve thenuclear family, might argue that repulsive cultural traits do notnecessarily 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 FidelCastro's tanks rolled through Havana. Thousandsof families, including my own, considered making the ultimate sacrifice andshipping their children off to the United States. These families knewnothing about the life that their children would have in exile and did notknow 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 Cubatogether in 1962. But about 14,000 children migrated alone to the UnitedStates under Operation Peter Pan, a program that provided visawaivers to children under 16. Because it became extremely difficult toleave Cuba after the missile crisis, it took years for these children to bereunited with their parents.

Elián's father may be an exemplary parent.

But he cannot divulge histrue aspirations. Instead, he, as well as Elián's grandparents, seemto be kept busy attending rallies where the father reads prepared speechesdenouncing the American government. Those of us who lived under Cuba'sCommunist regime are deeply suspicious. If the father couldtalk freely, we suspect that he too would choose to migrate to the UnitedStates.

How can we be so presumptuous? The recently published "Black Book ofCommunism" 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 theliberals who so adamantly favor sending Elián back to Castro's Cubaabsolutely certain that this is in Elián's interests and that this is whatElián'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."