Immigration Changing Borders

By Jordan Levin

Of all the Hispanics in the United States, Cubans would seem to be the most naturally sympathetic to new refugees coming to the Southern border. For 60 years, millions of Cubans fleeing the island’s communist government for the United States have benefited from a uniquely generous immigration policy created for them that has ranged from an early refugee aid program to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which lets Cubans become legal US residents more easily than any other nationality.

That special treatment has helped Cubans become one of the most successful and influential immigrant groups in the United States. Miami, where most Cuban arrivals settle, is a prime example of a thriving immigrant city. Cubans transformed Miami from a low-key resort town to a vibrant, Latin-flavored international metropolis – and a destination for people from across Latin America fleeing violence or seeking opportunity. “No immigrant group has been treated as generously as the Cubans,” says Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American former Congressman. “If there is an example of successful open immigration, it is the Cubans.”

And yet, Cubans are often unsympathetic to new Latin American asylum-seekers. Many don’t consider those running from gangs or dysfunctional governments to be refugees, a term they reserve for those fleeing communism in Cuba or Venezuela. In one online ad, Cuban-American Republicans in the Florida legislature call asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants “lawbreakers” who are abusing the refugee process, and say they could “destroy social order” and “pave the way for a socialist dictatorship”. Other Republican Cuban-American candidates disparage “illegals” and support President Trump’s border wall.

Conservative Cuban-American leaders and media seem to be reversing a longtime progressive trend amongst exiles, which culminated in President Obama’s opening of relations with Cuba. Many Cubans support Trump and his draconian immigration policies and often racist rhetoric. In June, a Mason-Dixon poll found 57% of Cuban-American voters in Florida would vote to re-elect Trump, while only 18% of the state’s non-Cuban Hispanics would do so. Their support could be key in this crucial swing state in 2020, with Cubans – who represent just 4% of US Hispanics – again poised to play an outsized role in the country’s politics.

Their outlier attitude to-wards immigration is rooted in Cuba’s unique history and relationship with the United States. “Cubans [in Miami] have always seen Cuba as a country that is politically or ideologically oppressed, as opposed to Central American countries that are only economically oppressed,” says Javier Diaz, a reporter for Spanish language network Univision, who covers the exile community, and came from the island in 2016. “Cubans see communism as a plague that someone who hasn’t lived under cannot understand. Cubans do not see violence in other countries, generated by their own people and not by a regime, as a reason to come to the United States. Political repression is not the same as repression by gangs of narco traffickers or criminals. […] All of this has been re-enforced by the anti-immigrant sentiment that has influenced this country under President Trump.”

Diaz’s assessment is echoed by Serafin Blanco, owner of ¡Ño, Que Barato! (Damn, That’s Cheap!) a popular clothing store in Hialeah, a municipality in Miami-Dade County where three-quarters of the population is Cuban and foreign-born. “They’re not refugees,” Blanco, who left Cuba in 1967 at 14, says of recent asylum-seekers. “They’re afraid they can’t make it in their countries, and they see an open door and they say ‘Let’s try’.” He says many exiles feel the same. “It’s not the same when you come from a country like Cuba where you have no freedom and no laws. Except for Nicaragua and Venezuela – and even there, they have more freedom, they have elections. That’s why Cuba has to be different.”

Cuba has been different. In the 60s, Cubans coming to Miami were beneficiaries of a humanitarian and public relations front in the US Cold War with their newly communist neighbor. They received financial aid, free food and medical care at a refugee center named the Freedom Tower, a Miami landmark. It was a crucial government-funded boost in the struggle to survive in a new country.

In the early 60s, the Operation Pedro Pan program, run by the Catholic Church and the federal government, brought over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to special camps, schools and foster homes, where they were cared for with warmth and humanity. That kindness is in stark contrast to the often horrifying treatment of Central American children, who are being taken from their parents, kept in prison-like barracks, sometimes caged, underfed, even dying for lack of medical care.

That special treatment has only reinforced the feeling among many Cuban-Americans that they are, in fact, special. They are the products of the wealthiest colony in the Spanish empire, more cultured and European than the rest of Latin America; from a country with a long, close connection to the United States: a small nation whose communist revolution – though hated by exiles – has given it an outsized role in world history. “Cubans on the island as well as in the US have always felt exceptional,” says Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who was brought to the US as a toddler in the early 60s. “We have a superiority complex.”

Duany says Cubans’ history, and their welcome in the United States “reinforced the sense of self-importance, that everyone fleeing the Cuban Revolution had the right to asylum ... The lack of sympathy is rooted in the historical experience of Cubans in this country. It’s led them to believe that they’re special as refugees, not just people coming to improve their lives.” According to Garcia, “There’s this idea that because my grandfather came here running from communism in 1967, he’s different from a young man who wants to provide for his family and not be in a violent gang. […] I’m not a wetback. I’m a political refugee, a -freedom fighter … It’s gone from an origin story you can touch to a myth about ourselves.”

There is a disturbing racial aspect of the Cuban superiority complex. Most exiles are light-skinned, the equivalent of white on the island, and continue to consider themselves white. There is even a Miami chapter of the Proud Boys, a notorious white supremacist group, that is mostly Cuban-American. “Cubans in exile think of themselves as white,” says Duany. “They don’t see themselves as being targeted by these racist comments Trump makes. Cubans in Miami think they’ll be spared the racism and rejection from other people in the US.”

Miami’s insularity, where Cuban-Americans dominate to a degree unique among Hispanics in US cities, becoming bank and university presidents, pop stars and senators, has reinforced the Cuban feeling that they’re closer to the American establish-ment than a construction worker or asylum-seeking single mother from Central America. “In a sense this has been a wealthy ghetto,” says Ricardo Ibarria, a Cuban-American progressive act-i-vist. “There’s a powerful and wealthy Cuban-American elite who are the leaders, and who associate more with a Kennedy or a Rothschild than a Ramirez or Gonzalez from Honduras. They feel [immigration] has nothing to do with them. Many of them see those immigrants as people they hire to do their garden.”

And yet Cubans also initially struggled with racism and rej-ec-t-ion. A front page article in the May 23, 1962 Miami Herald echoes contemporary anti-immigrant an-x-ieties. “Refugees from Castro’s Cuba continue to pour into Miami, and no end is in sight,” the story reads, speculating “Is Miami going to be maintained as Miami? Or will it become a relocated Havana, or a city encircled by slums, or a Latin American ghetto?”

Raul Martinez, longtime former mayor of Hialeah who was one of Miami’s first Cuban elected officials, arrived in 1960. As a child he worked at a gas station for tips. He remembers landlords who wouldn’t rent to Cubans and restaurants who wouldn’t serve them, teachers who told him to go back where he came from, and bumper stickers reading “Will the last American to leave Hialeah please bring the flag.” “We wanted to be American,” says Martinez, who now hosts a talk show on Radio Caracol. “We wanted to be accepted. So I’m flabbergasted when I see Cubans or anybody else who came in the last 10 or 20 years rejecting others who aspire to the same thing. I get people who write, ‘Why are you so interested in these people? Why don’t you tell them to go back where they came from?’”

Conservative exiles’ anti-immigrant attitudes have even expanded to their own people. Some think new Cuban arrivals are coming only to take advantage of US benefits like social security and Medicaid, and should no longer get immigration privileges. Which raises complicated questions about Cuban-Americans’ political endgame – for the island that has largely defined them, and the country they’ve adopted.

“There’s not a lot of empathy,” says Jorge Moreno, a Cuban-American restaurant own-er who debates politics with a wide circle on social media. “What Trump and Republicans are saying to immigrants is, ‘Go back and fix your own country’. We should be saying, thank god Kennedy didn’t say ‘Stay in Cuba, take Castro out of power, fix it yourself.’ There’s a big double standard.”

This culturally specific debate has broad political implications. Anger at the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers, and the President’s racist rhetoric, has energized Democrats, who hope the issue will propel key Hispanics to their side. But in Florida, conservative – and consistent – Cuban voters could tip this crucial swing state the other way. The consequences for the United States, Cuba, and Latin America could be enormous.

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