Mr. Carter and the Cubans

On May 5 when President Carter stood up to address the earnest and generous-minded people of the League of Women Voters it seemed right and proper and perfectly natural for him to speak of the flow of Cuban refugees into the United States in generous terms. He said.:

"Ours is a country of refugees. We'll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination and from the economic deprivation brought about by Fidel Castro and his government."

The sentiments were impeccable then and continue to be so today.

But because they were uttered by the President of the United states they increased an already serious problem for his country and today stand in the way of an orderly management of an extremely difficult and even dangerous problem.

The presidential promise of an "open heart and open arms" encouraged people with friends and relatives in Cuba to use or hire any boat they could lay hands on to go to Cuba. It encouraged persons owning boats to charter those boats, at sometimes very high fees, to bring refugees from Cuba to the United States. And now that the flood of refugees has become unmanageable, it makes it more difficult for the government to turn around and begin to shut off the flow which the President so recently was encouraging.

The plain fact is that the offer of "open heart and open arms," no matter how generous, humane, and noble in sentiment, was also a mistake. Had the President's staff been functioning as a presidential staff ought to function -- and had the President listened to his staff -- he would never have committed or appeared to commit himself and his country to a course of action which could not be carried out without enormous dislocation, cost, pain, and frustration to more people than it could help.

You or I could have uttered those words with no effect. Neither you nor I can make government policy. But the President inevitably does make, or influence, government policy every time he utters an opinion in public. Sometimes his words make policy even when uttered in private and not intended for action.

The essential core of the matter is that there are about ten million people in Cuba. No one knows what proportion of them would come to the United States if all were free to do so. Perhaps half of them would come. The proportion might be higher. But already the mere 50,000 or so who have come to southern Florida during the past month have swamped the facilities of the community and forced Washington to reverse the President's apparent promise of free entry for one and all.

One side effect has been to raise a cry of discrimination among blacks who claim, with reason, that Washington has been more ready to welcome Cubans, many of whom are white, than Haitians, all of whom are black.

There is almost no limit to the number of persons from Latin America who would come to the United States if its immigration barriers were let down and free entry opened to all. But sudden mass migration is impossible in modern urban society. America's Northern cities are still having trouble digesting the vast migration of people from the corn, cotton, and tobacco plantations of the South who were put out of accustomed work by new technology and invited northwards by wartime wages.

The Northern cities did not have sufficient housing, schools, fire and police systems to manage such migration. The total number was about ten million. That greatest single migration of peoples in modern times took about 15 years. It was at its peak during and after World War II. It peaked long ago. There is even a reverse flow now.Yet Northern cities are still struggling with the consequences of such a drastic shift in population.

But, to come back to Mr. Carter, he has a problem. This is a case where he made, or appeared to make, a promise which he could not possibly fulfill. He made it in all decency and high-mindedness. Yet it fed what for many must be false hopes. And he made it all the more difficult for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to do its duty. His well-intentioned words actually encouraged violation of the law.

A White House aide remarked the other day that Mr. Carter is still having trouble grasping and understanding the powers and also the limitation of the powers of the presidency. Here was a case of not appreciating the influence of his generous impulse. The moral, if there is one, is that Mr. Carter ought to have a staff able to see ahead the possible consequences of generous presidential words -- and listen to staff wisdom when it reaches him. As of today he either is not getting the right advice, or isn't listening to it.

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