Americans like to point to a crucial difference between a free and a despotic country: that free countries allow their citizens to leave, while tyrannical regimes throw an iron curtain around their borders and refuse to let their people go. Communist countries fence their peoples in; America allows its citizens to leave. Thousands clamor to get out of Russia or Cuba or Vietnam, while no one rushes to apply for citizenship in these alleged examples of workers' paradise.
Fair enough, and a good point as far as it goes. But curiously, the yearning masses seeking freedom from Communist countries get an all too chilly reception when they seek freedom and prosperity by entering the Land of the Free. If there is not exactly an iron curtain keeping these freedom-seekers out, there is at best grudging assent and at worst severe restrictions upon these would-be immigrants. The pitiful and truly heroic Vietnamese boat people were scarcely welcomed with open arms in the United States; in fact, Hanoi was blamed for allowing an excessive and disorderly flow of refugees from its shores.
The same anomaly occurred last April, when the Cuban regime began to allow tens of thousands of freedom-seekers to leave Cuba and emigrate to the United States. Once again, instead of hailing this relaxation of the Cuban Curtain and welcoming the refugees, Castro was denounced for "dumping" undesirables, prisoners, and mental patients upon us, and the US government began to arrest private boat owners for conducting the Cubans to freedom. A strange welcome indeed!
The Cubans who were allowed into the United States, moreover, were not simply allowed to immigrate, get a job, and blend into the American population. Instead, they have been herded into literal concentration camps under military rule, where they must stay until mountains of red tape are processed and until someone can be induced to vouch for each immigrant. Only then are they allowed to leave. In the meanwhile, the Cubans are suffering under our own home-grown brand of socialism. They are subject to the brutal or uncaring rule of Army personnel, very few of whom can speak Spanish. One experienced federal public health official states that health facilities at the camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, in Pennsylvania, are the "worst I've ever seen." Mary Horst, an educator who worked all summer at Indiantown, reports that the majority of peaceful Cubans are incarcerated and put at the mercy of a minority of Cuban "mafia," who are allowed to rule the compounds. "It's become a concentration camp," she pointed out. "I hate to use that term, but that's what has evolved."
The Cubans have been particularly brutalized by the officers of the Federal Protective Service, the law enforcement agency delegated to police the Cuban camps. A federal health official charges that the FPS officers, few of whom speak Spanish, hate the Cubans and "will beat them, do anything, without reason."
The Cuban immigrants are not eligible for welfare and are generally willing to take any job that might come their way. But in order to get a job, to resume normal life, they have to be able to get out of the camps; and this, not enough have been able to do. There have been many suicide attempts among the 15,000 Cubans still incarcerated in the camps, but these have been brusquely dismissed by the American authorities as "attention-getting gestures." One wonders how the lordly camp officials and FPS officers would like it if the shoe were on the other foot, and they were the ones kept prisoner in the camps.
There have been riots in the camps, and much of the cause has been cultural, with the American authorities simply failing to understand Cuban mores. Thus, the Americans insisted on keeping the windows barred, which prevented the Cubans from calling to each other from the windows. And, when the Cubans, who are night people, tried in frustration to cook chicken at night over a fire—the camp kitchen being closed early in the evening—they were busted for daring to have an open fire in the camp. In both cases, riots ensued.
It all boils down to this: In all the talk about freedom to leave or to enter, are we really interested in freedom, justice, and humanity, or are we only interested in scoring Brownie points in the Cold War game? If the former, we should not merely be content to condemn Russia or Cuba for not letting their people go; we should hail any occasion when some of their people do go, and we should welcome all of them to our shores with good fellowship and open arms. If we truly wish to be the land of the free, we must return to the traditional American policy before World War I of welcoming immigrants, of lifting our lamp by the golden door. America was built by immigrants, and we lost a good deal of our soul when the lamp nearly went out after World War I, and immigration was sharply restricted by a combination of racism and labor union restrictionism. Let us return to our own noble heritage and be the beacon-light of freedom once more.
Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.