America's decision to grant asylum to 3,500 Cubans -- while boatloads of fleeing Haitians continue to arrive in Florida -- draws attention to the enlightened new refugee legislation that was signed into United States law just last month.
In the case of the Cubans, the emergency authority of the Reference Act of 1980 was cited. The United States announced it would accept 3,500 Cubans, a figure which the White House considered a fair share of the some 10,000 persons who embarrassed the Castro regime by crowding into the Peruvian Embassy in hopes of leaving the country. Credit must go also to Peru, Spain, and Costa Rica, which have likewise agreed to take many of the Cubans. Other members of the international community are being tested on their humanitarianism as they decide whether to join in the compassionate effort.
As for the Haitians, they could be affected by the fact that the new refugee law removes discriminatory elements from previous legislation. This does not automatically mean that they will be classed and admitted as refugees. If they are judged to be coming to the US for economic rather than political reasons, if they are judged not to have well-founded fear of persecution should they be returned, then they would not qualify as refugees. But now at least they do not face the old refugee legislation lingering from the 1950s, which limited the US definition of refugees to those from communist countries or the Middle East. Under the new law refugees are defined to include persons from any part of the world.
This redefinition finally brought the US into compliance with United Nations definitions. And, indeed, the US Congress went further than the UN, which does not consider persons in their own countries as possible refugees. The law now permits the President to designate special circumstances under which persons in their own countries may be accepted as refugees.
Thus there is a new context for the court proceedings on the Haitians. An injunction prevented the US from deporting them after questions were raised about whether they were receiving due process. Action awaits the outcome of a suit now in court in Atlanta.
To return to the Cubans, there is an ongoing Cuban refugee program separate from the new law. Some 800,000 have been admitted to the US since Castro took power two decades ago. To admit the announced 3,500 under the new law, the President is required to consult with Congress. Yet Congress permitted the refugee "parole" power of the Attorney General to remain on the books for 60 days after the new law was signed. Under this power, he can admit extra refugees, as he has been doing in the case of Indo-China.So even without the new law, a way could have been found to admit the Cubans.
As for refugees in general, the Refugee Act of 1980 has the advantage of bringing America's effort on their behalf together under reformed and specific conditions. The number of refugees regularly allowed into the country each year has been increased from 17,400 to 50,000, and there are provisions for exceeding this figure when necessary. Refugees are to be admitted as refugees, but after one year they receive the status of legal permanent residents. Excluded from consideration as a refugee is anyone found to have participated in the persecution of others on the basis of politics, nationality, religion, or race. The creation of a US Coordinator for Refugee Affairs should help to keep the broad picture in view, now that refugees are properly defined not by where they come from but by the problems they face.