You couldn't miss her. The little Haitian girl dressed in a sunny yellow dress fluffy with crinolines and wearing a bright yellow bow on each pigtail, being lifted down from the boat like a princess from her throne. She was beaming.
You couldn't see her and fail to smile and think: Why, yes! But of course. Glad we invited her to the party. You couldn't glimpse that instant of pure innocence and not marvel at the power of hope.
After eight days at sea, she looked like she might have been going to a birthday party or off to ride a pastel float in the Easter parade. Instead, she was going to a brand spanking new country where, she has been told, people have plenty of food, lots of toys, schools, families and churches. We wear our Sunday best for such days.
The television cameras zoomed next to the scraggly Haitians, the wet ones, the barely dressed Haitians who had leapt from the 50-foot boat's bow and swum ashore hoping for asylum. Next the zoom went to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fielding questions from the Haitians' self-anointed spokespeople.
U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., insisted that Bush call his brother and get President Bush to instruct the Immigration and Naturalization Service to release the Haitians. She demanded to know why Cubans can swim ashore and stay in the United States while Haitians face deportation.
Indeed, Haitians and not others are detained under a new post-9-11 policy -often too long and under allegedly harsh conditions -while the INS reviews their claims of persecution and pleas for refugee status. More than a third of 187 Haitians who came ashore last December are still in detention, while some Haitian women have complained of abuse and other inhumane treatment while awaiting government dispensation.
Such claims bear serious scrutiny and remedy. No one would argue that we shouldn't treat all groups fairly, equally and humanely. But the reason Cubans who make it ashore are granted asylum is because their persecution back home is a certainty, whereas Haitians are considered refugees from poverty. As for claims of racism, Cubans are people of color as often as not.
Clearly, if our restrictive treatment of Haitians violates anti-discrimination laws or human rights, then our policies must change. On the other hand, we might at least consider the reasons for the policies, such as the possibility that Haitians historically fail to show up for their INS hearings once they've been released. Just a thought to balance whatever anti-Haitian theory might be percolating in the conspiracy incubator.
In any case, as we are swept away by the emotional moment -and smitten as I was by the yellow dress -we risk losing sight of other matters of equal importance, namely our desperate need to sanely manage our borders.
As television cameras bore down on Bush, and Meek continued to enjoy the sound of her
own voice, he visibly strained to remain calm. No doubt he was also fighting the urge to say what every rational American was thinking. Notwithstanding the beautiful little girl in the bright yellow dress, America cannot house, feed, clothe and educate every unhappy human being from every crummy country or America herself will sink.
Specifically, Florida is a leaking life raft that is daily, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to absorb nearly 900 new legal immigrants. The state is in crisis from overdevelopment and impossible population growth that have led to crowded schools and environmental decay.
Yet the same people who want to constitutionally mandate smaller classrooms (but no new taxes), and who complain about rising unemployment (connecting dots, anyone?) insist that returning illegal immigrants to their homelands is unjust and discriminatory.
No one running for office dare utter these unspeakable truths. It's un-American. We were all immigrants once upon a time. Every schoolchild knows the script by heart. But immigration laws exist for a reason, and we are a land of laws first. In order to remain a country to which people want to immigrate, we have to balance charity with wisdom.
The notion that we should absorb each and every refugee-choked boat that runs aground off Key Biscayne reminds me of the airline captain's instructions to passengers should an emergency occur. When the oxygen masks drop down, adults are told to strap on their masks before helping children and helpless others. If we aren't careful with our borders, there will be no adults left to distribute the oxygen.