George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

McClure: Refugee cr⁠i⁠s⁠i⁠s poses a moral d⁠i⁠lemma

By: Dr. J. Robert McClure / 2017

In June, many of us direct our thoughts to plans for Father’s Day. Family gatherings, backyard cookouts, and the presentation of not-too-mushy greeting cards are among the rituals that are possible because we Americans live in the relative peace and prosperity of a free society.

For a jarring contrast, however, just imagine the anguish faced by fathers caught up in the Middle East's tide of refugees. Further imagine what it must be like for a father to join his wife and kids aboard a rickety boat heading out across choppy seas toward an uncertain reception in a strange land.

Who can help but have empathy for persons leaving behind everything they've ever known and, as refugees, embarking on such a risky passage? Indeed, by definition, refugees are persons who are seeking refuge – from violence and war, from persecution, and even from poverty so dire that parents must watch as their children starve. And throughout history, America has been that “shining city on a hill” many of the world’s population has seen as the true land of opportunity.

For many Floridians, the scenes of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean will bring back memories of the steady wave of Cuban and Haitian refugees wading ashore along the area's beaches and in the Florida Keys.

That wave became a tsunami in 1980 when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro briefly allowed some of his subjects to leave the island. Many left via the port city of Mariel, thereby becoming known as “Marielitos,” a term that eventually became a pejorative even though most of these migrants were law-abiding folks seeking a better life.

However, the vast scale of this migration – roughly 120,000 Cubans arriving atop 15,000 or so Haitians in the space of a few months in a county of 1.6 million residents – was proportionally higher than the 1 million or so refugees reaching a European Union with roughly 500 million residents.

Moreover, the size and abruptness of the Mariel migration – and the Castro regime’s lack of cooperation – made it impossible to undertake a proper vetting of those who arrived. Among them were felons Castro released from his prisons and from facilities for the criminally insane.

Criminals and the insane not only tainted the reputation of the other Mariel migrants, but it predictably had an impact on Miami, the refugees' primary port of entry. The violent crime rate soared. Time magazine's famous “Paradise lost?” cover followed soon thereafter.

Is there a lesson in this for the nations now coping with the waves of refugees arriving from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and other nations wracked by civil wars, terrorist activities, and widespread anarchy? Do these waves of refugees include evildoers hiding among the ranks of the innocent who simply want a better life of freedom for their families?

As the Mariel experience taught Floridians in that long hot summer 37 years ago, the issue of freedom vs. security is both complicated and eternal, and doesn’t fit neatly on bumper stickers or cable television. Sometimes human empathy has to be tempered with pragmatism, lest innocent people die at the hands of those who wish to do evil, embedded among those innocent refugees. How best to sort through the ranks of the desperate in a fair and humane way is the challenge of the day.

J. Robert McClure is President and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a non-partisan policy center based in Tallahassee.