How fair is US immigration policy? As 3,000 Cubans a day come ashore in Florida, more than 1 million other people around the world are waiting in line -- in accordance with law -- to enter the United States.
But most of that million persons lack one advantage of the Cubans: proximity. The close location of Cuba eases transportation for its emigrants and presents the US with a fait accompli on its shores.
Much the same is true of immigrants from Mexico.
"It's an entirely new situation for us," says Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R) of New York, who has been active in the framing of immigration law.
"What went on in the [refugee processing] camps in Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere before now has to be done after they're here. It's giving us problems , which we're working out."
Mr. Fish, who turned the Cuban refugee facilities in southern Florida last weekend, says these hard questions will have to be asked after the Cuban refugee influx has passed the crisis stage:
* Are we to consider the Cubans political refugees or economic refugees?
* Is their status different from Haitians, Mexicans, or, for that matter, Soviet Jews?
* Once here, will it be possible to relocate some of them to another country?
"Even if they have family in the US, there's not automatically sufficient reason to allow them to jump the queue," Mr. Fish contends. "And yet, they're here. And people similarly situated who are 3,000 or more miles away can't avail themselves of the transportation [to get] here."
Mr. Fish says it is likely that Cuba and Haiti are the first two countries signaling what may be a trend in the 1980s. "Immigration pressure on us more and more will be from this hemisphere," he said.
The 1 million on waiting lists include the parents, sons, daughters, spouses, brothers, and sisters of US citizens. Scientists, artists, professionals, skilled and unskilled workers -- or entire classes of the persecuted, such as Soviet Jews or anticommunist Indochinese -- each has his own special reason for wanting to enter. The United States will receive 500,000 to 600,000 of them this year.
On Capitol Hill May 12, at a Senate committee hearing surcharged with anger, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts accused the Carter administration of "fundamental, basic failure" in dealing with the expanding crisis.
Mr. Kennedy charged the administration with discriminating against Haitians while welcoming Cubans.
Depending on the world political scene, many thousands more will become displaced this year by war, famine, or social change and given the opportunity would come to America, a presidential commission on refugee policy has reported.
Last year, before the influx of Cubans began, the country accepted 290,000 categorical immigrants, 200,000 immediate relatives of US residents, and 200,000 refugees. As was the case with the Indochinese "boat people" and Soviet Jews, it is possible that legislation could include all of the Cuban refugees as a class. But Mr. Kennedy's stinging criticism May 12 foreshadows difficulty for such a move.
"If you start doing this for the Cubans, you are going to have to start doing it for a lot of other groups, too," Mr. Fish says. "At this point, the only hope is restraint and discipline on the part of the Cuban-American community."
If the flow were to ebb, Mr. Fish says, the US then would be able to bargain with Cuban President Castro as well as bring order back into the process of accepting immigrants. the "boat people" crisis last year was more easily dealt with, says Mr. Fish, when the "numbers became manageable."
The Carter administration is preparing to receive 60,000 Cubans, although there is no guarantee the number will stop there. To this must be added the 20, 000 to 40,000 Haitians now in this country, the 6 million-plus Mexicans who have entered illegally, as well as the thousands of visitors who overstay the terms of their admission each year. (The General Accounting Office says it cannot account for more than 800,000 of this latter group.)
Over the next 50 years, population experts say, immigrants who have skirted the law could cause the US population to surge by 100 million persons or more.
"A sound immigration policy means a lot to the quality of life," says Mr. Fish. "A country does need immigrants. We can cope with a lot, but as the country grows in population, we've got to be concerned with what effect a given number of immigrants will have on our population."