Tag Archives: Syrian

Cubans pour across border, raising issue of double standard

EL PASO, Texas — As the morning light seeps into the chapel of an immigrant shelter here just blocks north of the U.S.-Mexico border, a man sleeps undisturbed on a cot, wrapped in a comforter.

The chapel doesn’t normally serve as a bedroom, but for months the rest of the rooms at the Annunciation House shelter have been full. From February to May, about 4,000 Cubans crossed over the Rio Grande River into Texas’ westernmost city. After making their way to shelters and churches, many have been sleeping in crowded, makeshift quarters on bunk beds, cots, couches and pews.

The number of Cubans coming to the U.S. has increased dramatically in the last few years. And it continues to rise, with about 77,000 Cubans entering between October 2014 and April 2016. Many are forgoing the typical route across the Florida Straits by boat to Miami and are traveling by foot, bus, boat and plane through Central America and Mexico to the Southwest border.

As the Cubans have begun to put down roots across the U.S., a broader debate has emerged over whether they should still be allowed to simply walk into the country and automatically be able to gain legal residency after a year, when it can take years for people fleeing other countries to gain refugee status or citizenship.

Some members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents emigrated from Cuba, have introduced bills that would end part or all of Cubans’ special immigration status or benefits. But others, such as Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House, say similar asylum privileges should be granted to people from other countries who are fleeing conditions that are worse than those Cubans face at home.

The debate is all the more acute in states like Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has been less welcoming to other immigrants. Abbott has kept Texas National Guard troops on the border to be on the lookout for Central Americans seeking to cross illegally into the U.S. And like more than two dozen other governors, Abbott has said he won’t accept the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state — a stance that federal courts have rejected.

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The difference between Cubans and Central Americans — who must prove they have been persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion to be granted refugee status — is evident here at Annunciation House.

The Cubans soon will begin to receive welfare checks from the government. Meanwhile, Garcia said, the unauthorized Central American immigrants they are bunking with may soon be deported. “There is no asylum for them,” he said.

Economic or political?

The exodus from Cuba began in earnest after December 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would begin to normalize relations between the countries.

About 36,000 Cubans have come to the U.S. in the first six months of fiscal 2016, from October to April, nearly surpassing the total for the previous 12 months.

Cubans have had special immigration status since the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. But since 1995, Cubans caught in the water on their way to the U.S. must prove they are refugees, while those who reach U.S. soil can stay, regardless of circumstances, under a policy dubbed “wet foot, dry foot.”

Cubans who made it here to El Paso say they faced a perilous, monthslong journey through Central America — hiking through jungles, hiding from violent guerillas stalking their routes, and speeding in the dark on small boats. But, they say, it was worth it.

“It’s been my dream since I was born to be in a free country,” Alberto Arce Perez said. “It’s the dream of all Cubans.”

The freedom they seek is economic and political, Perez and other Cubans staying in El Paso shelters said. Cuba scores among the worst in the world for civil liberties and political rights, according to Freedom House.

In Cuba, the government controls everything, Perez said. The food is rationed and sometimes deliveries don’t come. Many people live in extreme poverty — the average salary was about $22 a month in 2014.

The absence of freedom of speech means that if you speak out, you’ll be persecuted, said Armando Genaro Vazquez, who was an electrical technician in Cuba, and Héctor Martinez Rodríguez, who was a chauffeur, both of whom were staying at Annunciation House.

The two left Cuba, they said, because the situation won’t improve unless the Castros are no longer in control.

But others have doubts about whether the Cubans arriving in the U.S. are fleeing the communist island because they are being persecuted or simply seeking a better life economically.

William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University who specializes in Latin American policy and politics, said it’s clear to him they are coming for economic reasons, not political ones.

That’s in contrast to tens of thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, many of them unaccompanied children, who are threatened by gang violence in their countries. That they are turned away while Cubans are welcomed “doesn’t make sense,” LeoGrande said.

It makes the situation difficult for people helping immigrants, who must provide such different services to different groups, said Melissa Lopez, executive director of El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services.

“It’s really difficult as an immigration advocate to see two people in somewhat similar circumstances, in terms of the danger and harm they are exposed to over the course of their lives, and for one group to have the easiest path to immigration status, and one the hardest,” Lopez said.

Central Americans often show up at the door of the Annunciation House starved, sick, and scared, Garcia said. The U.S. should recognize their plight, just as it recognizes the plight of Cubans, he said.

Where to go next?

The land path that Cubans are taking here was made possible by policy changes in Cuba and Central America. In 2008, Ecuador began allowing people from any nation, including Cuba, to travel into the country — a policy that the country revoked in December. In 2012, Cuba stopped requiring its citizens to ask the country permission to leave.

This winter, faced with growing numbers of immigrants passing through, Nicaragua and Costa Rica shut their borders, trapping thousands of Cubans in Costa Rica and Panama. Since then, the governments have loaded Cubans onto planes heading north, flying thousands to Mexican cities just south of El Paso and Houston, where they have then been bused to the border.

So far this year, the biggest group of Cubans, about 25,000, has come through Laredo, a southwest Texas city that many cross on their way to Houston. The flood of Cubans has strained resources there, said Jim Townsend, spokesman for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. All the shelters are full.

In El Paso, meanwhile, only about 100 Cubans were left in temporary shelters as of last week. Of the 4,000 who entered the city since February, about 3,400 immediately caught a bus or plane, and 500 others have been helped to other cities, or found a place to stay in El Paso, said Juan Lopez, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Cuban and Haitian program.

Like many of the Cubans still here, Perez and his wife, who declined to give her name, don’t have money left from their journey or family in the U.S. who can help them.

Walking through the shelter where the couple is staying, Taylor Levy finds herself apologizing to the Cubans she sees. They’re waiting for a ticket out of town, anxious to start their new lives, and she is the one who will tell them when they can leave.

Levy, who works for Annunciation House, is coordinating their departures with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The national organization provides immediate needs to Cubans and Haitians, such as shelter and food, through a government contract, Juan Lopez said.

Lopez finds local branches of Catholic Charities across the country with the capacity to help the Cubans, and sends them there, mainly to Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas; Louisville, Kentucky; Palm Beach, Florida; Phoenix; Rochester, New York and San Diego. His group has seen about 600 Cubans in El Paso so far, and about 100 have enrolled in its program, he said.

The Perezes are trying to scrape together money to buy a suitcase, although they don’t know yet where they’ll be headed. They said they don’t care, as long as it’s in the U.S.

Stateline is a news service provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Refugee crisis recalls that of Jews in WWII

Sol Messinger was just 7 when he stood with his father at the rail of the ocean liner St. Louis and stared into the gathering darkness. But nearly eight decades later, Messinger still recalls the lights of Miami glittering off the bow, so near to him and more than 900 fellow Jewish refugees aboard, yet beyond their reach.

“I look out into the ocean and I get this queasy feeling,” says Messinger, whose family escaped Europe for the United States three years after American officials turned away the vessel in 1939. Now 83, he is a pathologist in Buffalo, New York. “The Jews did not pose any threat to the U.S. It’s really unforgivable.”

Now, fresh angst about whether to admit refugees or turn them away has put the spotlight back on the shunning of the St. Louis and other decisions, now widely regretted, by U.S. officials before and during World War II.

In the wake of Islamic State terrorists killing 130 people in Paris, a backlash against the United States admitting Syrian refugees — many of them Muslims — has fueled a bitter debate, with politicians, pundits and others drawing lines between present and past.

Similarities between the rhetoric of today and the attitudes of the U.S. public and officials during World War II make that history worth recalling, scholars say, as the country confronts new fears of terrorism.

“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of FDR and the Jews and a professor of history at American University.

But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said. “Those arguments are chillingly similar to the arguments being made against the admission of the Syrian refugees.”

The 1930s saw widespread disdain for Jewish people from Europe. Opposition to admitting refugees was heightened by the economic worries left by the Great Depression. Those public attitudes were reinforced by the U.S. State Department and other agencies, which worked to limit an influx of Jewish people whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled as potential infiltrators, he said.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered relaxation of refugee quotas, Vice President John Nance Garner counseled that if Congress were allowed to vote in private, the lawmakers would ban immigration altogether, Lichtman said.

Lichtman isn’t alone in making the comparison. Recently, Ohio professor Peter Shulman of Case Western Reserve University used Twitter to post results from a 1938 public opinion poll showing Americans overwhelmingly rejected admission of Jewish people from Germany in the years leading up to the outbreak of war.

The reaction “was instantaneous and totally overwhelming. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” said Shulman.

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, criticizing a number of Republican governors — including Scott Walker of Wisconsin — for opposing admission of Syrian refugees, cited the 1938 poll, which said 67.4 percent of Americans said the U.S. should try to keep German and Austrian refugees out of the country and 61 percent opposed allowing 10,000 German Jewish children to enter.

“We are not going to make that mistake in our time and voices of intolerance and voices of division are not going to cause us to do something that is against our values,” DeBlasio said.

“When we sent Jews back to Germany and when we sent Japanese to internment camps, we regretted it and we will regret this as well,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said before 47 House Democrats and 242 Republicans voted for a bill to put new security limits on a plan by President Barack Obama to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.

Responding to the vote, Karin Johanson, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s D.C. legislative office, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “and this un-American bill’s supporters falsely claim it will simply pause U.S. resettlement of refugees. In fact, it will bring resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a grinding halt by adding layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous process. It also discriminates against refugees based on their national origin, nationality and religion. Supporters of this bill want us to turn our backs on refugees who are seeking safe harbor from the very terrorism we all abhor. This is not leadership.”

There is a long pattern in U.S. politics of labeling refugees as a threat, whether those fleeing the Nazis, refugees of the Hungarian Revolution or boat people uprooted by the Vietnam War, said Kelly Greenhill, author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy.

“Every time this country is confronted with .… a visible influx of people, the issue becomes politicized,” said Greenhill, a professor of political science at Tufts University and a research fellow at Harvard University’s school of government. “This is a movie we’ve seen before and it’s sort of unfortunate, but it has a curious sameness across time, which doesn’t make it better.”

In the years since World War II, the U.S. has become the world’s largest recipient of international refugees. 

But of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, just three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. Only one of those, an Uzbeki immigrant, spoke of targeting the United States but had no specific plans, the institute said.

While taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees would be a significant increase from the roughly 2,000 admitted since the country’s civil war began in 2011, it is a fraction of those going to other countries. Up to 800,000 people are expected to seek asylum in Germany by the end of this year, according to MPI.

Obama offers Walker, other governors individualized reports on refugees

The White House is proposing to offer governors individualized reports about refugees in their states.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough says in letters to all 50 governors that upon receiving a governor’s request, the State Department would send back a “tailored report” on refugees resettled in the last month and throughout the year so far.

A copy of the letter sent to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was obtained by The Associated Press. Walker is among the governors who has said the United States should not take in refugees from Syria.

McDonough says the State Department would update the information monthly on a password-protected website. He says it would break down refugees by nationality, gender and age range.

The new system comes as governors have sought to block Obama from placing Syrian refugees in their states following the Paris attacks linked to the Islamic State group.

Muslim-bashing GOP candidates score big with Republican voters

Some leading Republican presidential candidates seem to view Muslims as fair game for increasingly harsh words they might use with more caution against any other group for fear of the political cost. So far, that strategy is winning support from conservatives influential in picking the nominee.

Many Republicans are heartened by strong rhetoric addressing what they view as a threat to national security by Islam itself, analysts say. Because Muslims are a small voting bloc, the candidates see limited fallout from what they are saying in the campaign.

“I think this issue exists on its own island,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican political consultant who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s highly unlikely to cause a political penalty, and there is no evidence that it has.”

Since the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, GOP front-runner Donald Trump has said he wants to register all Muslims in the U.S. and surveil American mosques. He has repeated unsubstantiated claims that Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrated by the “thousands” when the World Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Donald Trump is already very well-known for being brash and outspoken and is appealing to a group of people — a minority of American voters, but a large minority — who seem to like that kind of tough talk,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

Rival Ben Carson said allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. would be akin to exposing a neighborhood to a “rabid dog.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, “I’d like for Barack Obama to resign if he’s not going to protect America and instead protect the image of Islam.”

Such statements appeal to Republicans who think Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, have not done enough to fight jihadis, Green said. The sentiment also plays well for evangelicals concerned about violence directed at Christians in the Middle East and angered about restrictions their missionaries face in predominantly Muslim countries.

“There’s a religious undercurrent here, aside from foreign policy issues,” Green said.

Other inflammatory rhetoric from the Trump and Carson campaigns has generated far different reactions.

When Trump announced his campaign, he said Mexican immigrants are “bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He was widely denounced. Polls find Latinos strongly disapprove of his candidacy and his remarks alienated other immigrant groups.

The potency of comments criticizing Muslims was apparent even before recent attacks by extremists in France, Lebanon and Egypt.

Carson’s campaign reported strong fundraising and more than 100,000 new Facebook friends in the 24 hours after he told NBC’s Meet the Press in September, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Associated Press, “While the left wing is huffing and puffing over it, Republican primary voters are with us at least 80–20.”

“People in Iowa particularly, are like, ‘Yeah! We’re not going to vote for a Muslim either,” Bennett said at the time. “I don’t mind the hubbub. It’s not hurting us, that’s for sure.”

According to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, Republicans view Muslims more negatively than they do any other religious group, and significantly worse than do Democrats. A different Pew poll last year found that 82 percent of Republicans were “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism, compared with 51 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents.

Today, 84 percent of Republicans disapprove of taking in Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslims, compared with 40 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents, according to a Gallup poll released just before Thanksgiving.

In recent years, Americans’ attitudes toward Islam and Muslims have been relatively stable following terrorist attacks. But opposition jumped in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and around major elections. To Dalia Mogahed, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, those are signs that “the public was being manipulated” by politicians with agendas.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, when President George W. Bush visited a Washington mosque and said “Islam is peace,” public opinion of the faith actually improved, she said. But the absence of such a leader has created a clear path for candidates who oppose Islam.

“They’ve now latched onto Muslims as an easy target with no consequences,” Mogahed said. “We’ve really moved the threshold of what is socially acceptable.”

Singling out Muslims is not new.

Before the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich called for a federal ban on Islamic law and said Muslims could hold public office in the U.S. if “the person would commit in public to give up Shariah.” Huckabee, then considering a presidential run, called Islam “the antithesis of the gospel of Christ.”

But candidates at the top of the field stayed away from such rhetoric.

“The kind of things that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are saying today are things that Mitt Romney would have never said,” said Farid Senzai, a political scientist at Santa Clara University. Romney was the Republican nominee in 2012.

Criticism of Muslims is hardly limited to presidential campaigns. In recent years, there have been ads by anti-Muslim groups and well-organized campaigns against the building of mosques, along with pressure on state legislatures to ban Shariah law.

“All of these things — built up over more than a decade by a few very vocal people — have created a climate in which it is not just acceptable for politicians to play to our basest instincts, but perhaps politically expedient,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an email.

The intensity of the rhetoric is partly a symptom of the large field of GOP candidates, all trying to stake out ground to prove themselves as the most patriotic and toughest on national security, said Charles Dunn, former dean of the school of government at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson, an evangelist and one-time GOP presidential candidate.

“The tone is much more strident now, much less forgiving,” Dunn said.

American Muslims make up just under 1 percent of the U.S. population, Pew estimates. They come from many different backgrounds and are widely dispersed, limiting their political influence, Green said.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a policy and advocacy group based in Los Angeles, sent letters in October to all the presidential candidates asking them to attend the organization’s public policy forum. The candidates either did not respond or declined, council spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said.

“Over the last 10 years, the political and civic organizations for U.S. Muslims have become much better organized, but I think their voice is still fairly muted,” Green said.

Even so, some observers say the verbal attacks risk alienating larger segments of voters, particularly other immigrants worried they could be next.

Suhail Khan, who worked in a number of posts in George W. Bush’s administration and has decried criticism by Republican politicians of fellow Muslims, said: “There’s no doubt that when specific candidates, in this case Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump, think that they can narrowly attack one specific group, other Americans of various faiths and backgrounds are paying attention.”