America's open arms

President Carter could hardly have spoken otherwise than he did about the "open heart and open arms" awaiting in the US the thousands of Cuban refugees being ferried across the Florida Straits to Key West and Miami. It was a welcome reminder of the generosity which has given the US a special strength and a special universal appeal beyond ideologies and rigid nationalism during its 200 years of history. Yet what is happening is food for thought -- and for remembering the Biblical injunction to be as "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

Throughout history, both the map of the world and the rise and fall of civilizations have been shaped by what the Germans call (in referring to their own history) the Volkerwanderung, or great migrations. The US itself was born of a Volkerwanderung. Nineteenth-century immigration from Europe largely made the US what it is today. The unique Constitution on which the republic was founded was inspired by an awareness of a set of universal principles. Those principles opened the door from the outset to American citizenship to all willing to subscribe to them -- regardless of race, ethnicity, origin, color, or creed. It continues so.

But in this last quarter of the 20th century, the US has become a beacon and lighthouse for would-be migrants and refugees, for the persecuted and the poor, on a more worldwide scale than ever before. It is a haven and a magnet for a Volkerwanderung vaster in scope and pouring in from more distant corners of the planet than at any earlier stage in history. Visit any local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service anywhere in the US and you will immediately understand.

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Until this year, the most visible recent wave getting the spotlight of attention came from Indochina -- above all, the boat people and the still threatened people of Cambodia. This spring, however, we have the Cubans. By his own admission, Fidel Castro has failed after two decades to make of his homeland a Maxist paradise and he is in deep trouble. To divert attention, he is trying to transfer the trouble to the US by opening the gates to many of those who want to flee across the 90 miles of water to miami. There an earlier migration of Cuban refugees has established a relatively flourishing community more freely and genuinely Cuban than anything to be found in Havana, where fear forces people to whisper and glance over their shoulder. His aim? Social disruption on the mainland.

Add to this the wider and heavier steady inflow of Spanish-speaking migrants from elsewhere in Latin America, above all from Mexico, and you have a Volkerwanderung demanding more foresighted planning and thought than any that has preceded it into the US. As a recent series in this paper pointed out, hispanics will soon overtake blacks as the biggest minority in the country. And the wave of Hispanics will force the US to decide -- preferably sooner rather than later, if disruptive upheaval is to be avoided -- what is the place, if any , for a second culture and language within the republic.

It is fashionable, both within and without the US, to denigrate and undervalue the American achievement and the American promise. The achievement and the promise are in fact as compelling as ever. Are people clambering into boats or braving danger to flee in such numbers to anywhere but the US? Does the Soviet Union have such a magnetic pull? In that particular case, the would-be movement is away, not toward.

Yet the American achievement and the American promise can be preserved only if they are cherished and if American generosity, in its impulsiveness, does not overlook the basics on which they have been built. In a word, those basics provide for one nation united in support of universal principles -- and willing to accept the discipline, even the cost, of preserving them.

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