PRESIDENT CLINTON has tried just about every approach to the Haitian refugee problem except the merciful one — letting the Haitians come here.
First he adopted the Bush policy he'd once condemned as "callous": intercepting refugees on the high seas and returning them to Haiti by force.
A US Coast Guard cutter intercepts a tiny sailboat carrying Haitian refugees. Thousands of Haitians, fleeing oppression and economic desperation, have taken to the sea in a frantic bid for asylum in the United States.
Then he got the United Nations to tighten the sanctions noose. That intensified the hunger and misery of ordinary Haitians, spurring even more of them to a frantic search for refuge. In May, he dropped the forced-return policy and decreed that Haitians picked up by the Coast Guard could apply for refugee status aboard ship. The number of boat people soared.
In July, he dropped that policy. Henceforth, the president decided, all Haitians would be barred from the United States, but those stopped at sea would be taken, if they chose, to a safe haven somewhere else.
Now, with thousands of Marines in the Bahamas to practice invading small islands, Haiti's deposed president, the violence-inciting Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is sending broadcasts back home from an airborne radio station.
Eighteen months, and this is what Clinton's zig-zagging policy — in which everything is changeable except the exclusion of refugees — has achieved: The surge of boat people has increased, the hellish suffering on Haiti has worsened, and young Americans in uniform are steeling themselves for combat.
Why not let the Haitians in?
When our parents and grandparents fled terrors we will never have to fear, America's door was open. It was open to Germans escaping wars in the 1790s, to Irish escaping famine in the 1840s, to Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the 1900s, to Hungarians escaping communism in the 1950s. Why should it be slammed in the face of panicky boat people kneeling at our threshold today, begging for sanctuary from dictators?
These are precisely the kind of newcomers America should crave: men and women willing to risk everything — even their lives — for a chance at freedom and freedom's opportunities. Such immigrants are a national growth hormone. Thrilled to be here, grateful for the blessings of liberty, intent on building a little American dream of their own, the vast majority of immigrants repay their adopted homeland with energy, enthusiasm, hard work, and new wealth.
Immigrants come to make their lives better; they end up making everybody's life better.
So why not let the Haitians in?
Because they're hard to understand? Have unfamiliar customs? Cook funny-smelling food? Aren't like — you know — us?
So Americans who were already here said about the Germans and the Irish. And the Italians. And the Chinese. And the Lebanese.
"America must be kept American," President Coolidge said 70 years ago. Bigots and nativists say the same thing today. Yet the most remarkable characteristic of "Americanness" is that it has nothing to do with blood or race and everything to do with belief and culture and attitude. Refugees can come to this country and become 100 percent Americans in a way that they could never become Spaniards, Slovaks, or Scots.
If anything distinguishes the current waves of immigrants from those of earlier eras, it isn't what they bring with them. It's what they find when they get here:
Welfare and food stamps, which send a signal — you don't have to work. Divisive multiculturalism, which signals -- you don't have to assimilate. Bilingual education — your children don't have to learn English. Legal Services lawyers -- you can turn gripes and disappointments into lawsuits. An impotent criminal justice system — you don't have to respect the law. Vulgar and violent popular entertainment -- you needn't exercise self-control.
Immigrants didn't send this country into its sociocultural nose dive, but inevitably a few are corrupted by it. (Some groups more than others: Half of all Cambodian and Laotian households, tragically, are on the dole). The solution isn't to shove frightened refugees back out to sea and deprive ourselves of their gifts. It is to inoculate newcomers against the welfarist and separatist viruses by reviving the old immigrant code — you get off the boat, you get a job, you learn the language, you try to fit in — and aggressively enforcing it.
The Golden Door is still open, we should tell the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; new arrivals are still welcome. But — we expect you to become Americans. And if you haven't earned your citizenship after five years, you will be sent away.
Note: earned your citizenship. That will take more than passing a trivial test and swearing an oath. During your five-year trial period, you will have to hold down a job (or get decent grades in school if you're a student). You will have to learn English and the rudiments of American history. You will not be allowed to collect welfare or become a public charge. You will have to keep out of trouble with the law.
That is the deal we should offer — not just to Haitians, but to Cubans, Mexicans, Chinese, Irish, Cambodians: We are a nation of immigrants, and we have room for you, too. But unless you're ready to become a good American, don't bother coming.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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