Sophonie Telcy is a six-year-old girl, whose mother risked everything to remove her from the tiny island country of her birth, a country that is wracked by political turmoil and economic misery. After bringing Sophonie to the United States, her mother died, leaving Sophonie without care. Unlike a more well-known young motherless child, Sophonie has drawn no crowds. No marches or national work boycotts are being held in her honor. No one calls her survival a "miracle." The public is largely indifferent to Sophonie's plight because she comes from the island of Haiti rather than the island of Cuba.
The difference between this six-year old-girl from Haiti and her more famous male counterpart from Cuba is that the latter is deemed a political refugee, while the former is merely fleeing economic misery. The gap in treatment between these two children illustrates one of the most ideologically problematic distinctions in U.S. immigration policy. As tensions between Cuba and the U.S. ease and the political climate in Haiti becomes less stable, America should ease its restrictions against Haitian immigrants.
The poverty and misery in Haiti are so astounding that the argument to accept Haitian refugees could be made on humanitarian grounds alone. The country's economic structure has collapsed. It has no major industries, leading to an unemployment rate listed between 70 and 85 percent, according to a report two months ago by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
However, helping people is rarely a good enough reason for Congress to act. The legislature needs to realize that Haiti's political climate is the real reason that Haitian refugees have flooded the coast of South Florida at a daily rate that reached into the thousands.
Last week, over 200 Haitian refugees were found stranded, without food and water, after a failed attempt to escape the escalating violence in their homeland as elections approach. The stories that emerge from refugees sound like they have emerged from a war zone. Some refugees who had been involved with the electoral campaign said that they had received death threats. "We were in misery," said Francisco Martinez, a Haitian whose parents were from the Dominican Republic, to the New York Times last week. "The chiefs in Haiti are killing people. They burn down houses."
The most frightening development was the assassination of a well-known radio commentator, Jean Dominique, who was one of the few uncensored voices in the country. Dominique was gunned down by masked assailants outside the station where he had worked for more than fifteen years. The free and democratic elections promised by the President, Rene Preval, have been postponed for months. Since March 29, ten prominent public figures have been assassinated for political reasons. During a political riot following the funeral of Dominique, the police reportedly stood by and did nothing.
Haiti is a land where law and order have degenerated. The country's grip on democracy lies between tenuous to non-existent. Those who flee fear political retaliation, not just hunger and poverty. Yet the rule for Haitian refugees who reach the United States is repatriation. Cubans who reach U.S. soil, however, are often granted parole status, which allows them to apply for a work visa immediately and to petition for permanent residency after only a year. Haitians on Florida's beaches are almost guaranteed being sent home, Cubans will almost certainly be allowed to stay. Some have denounced the policy as racist. While the reason for the difference in restrictions is not exclusively linked to race, the picture these two stories paint of the difference in immigration regulation begins to smack of preferential treatment.
For too long, the American public has swayed and sighed with every minor fluctuation in the case of the notorious Elian Gonzalez. His personal wellbeing is the subject of conversation across Miami-Dade county. No detail is too small not to warrant mentioning in national publications. When federal agents forcibly removed him from his Miami relatives' home, the Associated Press story, carried in major newspapers (including The Crimson), reported that play-doh was provided so that he could relieve his stress.
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