Think again: Immigrants are changing; our policy must change too

Several times during his dictatorship, Fidel Castro cleared political dissidents from Cuba’s jails and prisons and encourage them to leave the country. From 1978 into the early 1980s, as many as 3,600 Cubans came to this country, using the blanket refugee status the United States offered Cuban expatriates. A smaller but similar exodus took place in 1994.

People opposed to Cuban immigrants, and perhaps immigration in general, to this day allege that Castro sent us criminals, drug addicts and people with mental issues he didn’t want to deal with. While no population is perfect, most of those who came were critics of Castro or supporters of the United States or democracy in general. Crime didn’t spike when they came and many of those migrants became valuable members of the U.S. communities in which they settled.

That’s worth considering now that Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega has taken similar action. Perhaps taking a cue from the Greg Abbott book of migrant handling, Ortega last week took 222 dissidents from their cells, loaded them onto a plane and flew them to Washington, D.C. Unlike Abbott’s surprise bus drops, however, U.S. officials were advised of the flight and were ready to take the migrants in.

Lest this flight arouse misleading talk of Ortega cleaning out his prisons, let us remember that reportedly, the prisoners’ crimes were in opposing the dictator’s oppressive socialist regime. They include priests, students and human rights activists who have protested the government and its actions.

Like many former Cuban dissidents who have become conservative mainstays in Florida, the Nicaraguan expatriates most likely share the pro-democracy, anti-communist views expressed by many of U.S. conservatives who would want to keep them out.

This suggests that many people need to change the way they think about our current immigration atmosphere. Many critics remain locked into the old perception that immigrants are Mexican nationals coming across to steal jobs and welfare benefits — ignoring the fact that immigrants can’t get such benefits since the 1997 welfare reform act.

Moreover, casual immigration has dropped in recent years. Census data indicate that our population of Mexican nationals has fallen by more than 400,000 in the past decade. Meanwhile, we are receiving more immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

Refugees are becoming a growing part of our immigrant population. The planeload of Nicaraguans is only the latest, following people fleeing, Haiti, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Central American countries. Fewer people are trying to enter our country clandestinely; instead they seek out border officials and ask for asylum.

U.S. and international law treat refugees differently from traditional visa applicants, since for many deportation could be fatal. We can’t build walls and do nothing else; we must review their petitions and offer them sanctuary if it’s warranted.

Chances are that those whom we embrace won’t be parasites, but grateful people who will help our nation progress, just like the many migrants who built this country into the bastion of hope that continues to draw freedom seekers from across the globe.