The Elian phenomenon has become so phenomenal as to be much more interesting than Elian himself. On CNN, during the blizzard that flattened the East Coast in January, weather updates alternated with Elian updates. Bulletin: Elian's grannies are now in New York! They will soon meet Elian at this house in Miami! Stay tuned!
Recently I went to the Nexis database and typed four names: President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Alan Greenspan, Elian Gonzalez. How many articles did the major newspapers publish about each of those people during, say, the two weeks beginning on Jan. 12? The scores: Clinton, 717; Elian, 543; Hillary, 324; Greenspan, 168. Poor Alan. He is only the man upon whom the world's prosperity largely depends.
In case you've just revived from a coma, on Thanksgiving Day six-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found adrift off the Florida coast, clinging to an inner tube. His mother and nine other Cubans had died after their boat capsized; Elian was one of three survivors. Cuban-American relatives in Florida promptly claimed the boy and insisted on keeping him, so that he could grow up in freedom, as his mother had wanted. Elian's father in Cuba demanded that he be sent home. Around the country, Americans debated whether parenthood trumps freedom or freedom trumps parenthood.
That an entire country should look up from its mundane business to agonize about the fate of an orphaned six-year-old is endearing. Still, qualms nag. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could call the Elian mania hypocrisy, or even tokenism. The American policy on Elian is not the same as the American policy on many thousands of people who are not Elian, and whose names and faces will never appear on CNN.
To begin with, Elian is Cuban. That means that he, like other Cubans, receives uniquely favorable treatment under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which basically allows any Cuban who reaches dry land in America to become a permanent resident. "If Elian Gonzalez were Haitian," wrote Elmer Smith in his Philadelphia Daily News column earlier this year, "he would have been out of here so fast you could water-ski behind the boat that hauled him home."
That is true. On New Year's Day, a rickety wooden boat carrying about 400 Haitians ran aground off the Florida coast. Haiti is a miserably poor country in which human rights abuses are common and the government has disintegrated, leaving the people at the mercy of thugs. Six or more Haitians died on the way to Florida. When the surviving 400 arrived, all but four (who were ill) were promptly sent home.
So the United States ties itself in knots debating whether one Cuban should stay, while Haitians are summarily returned by the hundreds. In Miami, Haitian-Americans and their allies protested the double standard. To their credit, television reporters and newspaper editorial writers took note. Few, however, noticed another wrinkle.
The standard Elian narrative (see above, for example) reports that the boy "was found" (passive voice) clinging to an inner tube. In fact, fishermen found him and brought him ashore. It was lucky for Elian that he was rescued by ordinary American citizens who were unfamiliar with the ordinary American policy, because if the U.S. Coast Guard had rescued him, he would be back in Cuba today.
The same country that is now agonizing over the best interests of this Cuban child has made a deal with Fidel Castro to ensure that only a few Cubans get the opportunity to face Elian's dilemma. In 1994, overwhelmed by the flood of Cuban boat people and worried about the steady loss of life at sea, the United States agreed to take at least 20,000 Cubans a year. In exchange, and to deter risky seafaring, the United States agreed that Cubans who are intercepted (or rescued) at sea will be returned to Cuba. In 1998, the Coast Guard interdicted more than 900 Cubans and returned them to Cuba.
You would be right to guess that more than 20,000 Cubans would like to come to America. Considerably more, in fact. In 1998, more than half a million Cubans--a number equivalent to a quarter of Havana's population--entered the lottery for a precious American visa. However, accommodating as many Elians as possible is not the American policy. The government could admit more than 20,000 Cubans if it chose, but it chooses not to. As for Cubans found at sea, they are not welcomed ashore. They are entitled to stay once they reach dry land, so the government does what it can to stop them from reaching dry land. Last June, in an episode that drew national attention, the Coast Guard used water hoses and pepper spray to stop several Cubans from swimming ashore in Florida.
Each year, many people who do not happen to be either Elian Gonzalez or Cuban, but who are equally desperate or needy, turn up at the American border seeking asylum. They should not be excessively optimistic. The Immigration and Naturalization Service says that, in fiscal 1999, 38 percent of the people who applied for asylum received it.
Meanwhile, the same Republican Congress that is clamoring to shower the blessings of American life on Elian has busied itself making asylum harder to obtain. In 1996, Congress gave the INS the authority to eject asylum seekers after only the most cursory kind of judicial review. (Non-asylum seekers--ordinary immigrants--can be rejected without any review; under the 1996 law, the INS can simply turn them back at the airport.) Congress also required that asylum seekers be placed in mandatory detention (jail, basically) for a few days, until the INS can decide whether their cases are credible. Then the INS can elect either to release them or to detain them indefinitely while their claims are processed.
The result is that many asylum seekers are locked up for weeks and months--about 60 percent of them in county jails, according to Matthew Wilch of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore. Thanks in large measure to Congress's 1996 law, says Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, INS detention "is actually the fastest-growing prison system in the United States today." One 15-year-old Chinese girl spent eight months in a Portland, Ore., juvenile jail. A 21-year-old Ugandan spent 18 months incarcerated. Both eventually received asylum, but many, of course, do not.
Every nation needs its fairy tale: a bedtime story about the sort of place it is or hopes to be. America's fairy tale is the most inspiring and noble that any great nation has produced: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Elian captivates the country because he embodies that story.
But Elian is the exception, not the rule. If you look at the rule, you find, as Philip G. Schrag writes in his new book, A Well-Founded Fear: The Congressional Battle to Save Political Asylum in America, that this country's history, with the important exception of a thaw between 1960 and 1995, is one of steadily reduced openness to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.