With the debate over the potential terrorist threat posed by Syrian refugees coming into the United States, it is worth investigating how the United States has handled refugee situations before. With the horrific slaughter of innocent civilians in Paris last week, the civil war in Syria has scarred the cultural heartland of western civilization, and Republicans across the country have been quick to declare that the United States could ill-afford the risk of bringing in any more Syrian refugees.
Republican presidential hopeful and Texas senator Ted Cruz has stated his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees in the U.S., saying it's too much of a terrorist risk. Ted Cruz went so far as to suggest a religious test for Syrian refugees, stating that “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror” whereas Muslims fleeing Syria should go to other Muslim countries instead of the U.S.
Rival GOP presidential hopeful and Florida Senator Marco Rubio said over the weekend that the U.S. won't be able to take more refugees. “As I’ve said repeatedly over the last few months, you can have 1,000 people come in, and 999 of them are just poor people fleeing oppression and violence, but one of them is an ISIS fighter” – a terrorist.
This argument is particularly interesting given the personal storyline that both Republican candidates of Cuban heritage have used to sell their vision of the American Dream, which has involved their families' and community's exile from their native Cuba.
Ted Cruz has said that his father, Rafael Cruz, was an early Castro sympathizer and had expressed a desire to fight alongside Fidel Castro. Despite that early support Rafael Cruz managed to come into the country and has lived a long life in the United States without incident.
Marco Rubio has frequently repeated that he is the “son of exiles”, and although his parents came before Castro took power, they have said the reason they didn't go back to their country though they considered it and visited was due to Castro's government. Rubio has staked his strong opposition to Cuba's government and supported those who have left and made their lives in the U.S.
But what if instead of open arms we would have prevented Cuban families from coming to the U.S? As citizens of a country like Cuba, which was growing increasingly belligerent towards the United States, was the United States right to take a chance on them?
President Lyndon Johnson stood before the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965 to sign the Hart-Celler Act, otherwise known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished decades of race-based policies that had formerly dictated who could immigrate into the country. At the signing President Johnson made particular reference to Cubans fleeing the communist Castro regime. “I declare this afternoon to the people of Cuba that those who seek refuge here in America will find it,” said Johnson.
It is with particular irony that today with refugees seeking to escape their war-torn country in Syria, that Johnson would announce back then the relevance of immigrants seeking refuge from their home country . Johnson said, “Once again, it stamps of the mark of failure on a regime when many of its citizens voluntarily choose to leave the land of their birth for a more hopeful home in America.” To President Johnson, Cuban families were not threats to the country, but had been an opportunity to prove to the world the potential of American values.
There was little doubt that the homeland of Rubio and Cruz's parents was seen as the sworn enemy of the United States. With barely a hundred miles separating Havana and the southern tip of the Keys in Florida, the United States had been taken to the brink of nuclear war against the Soviet Union over missiles that had been discovered on Cuban soil.
Brandon Valeriano, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Global Security at the University of Glasgow, says, “Perhaps the closest moment we ever came to World War III surrounded uses of Soviet power in such cases as the Cuban Missile Crises”. Most chilling about the Cuban Missile Crisis, says Valeriano, was communism’s “reach and ability to realistically threaten the homeland”.
With communism at our door and the stakes of a nuclear Soviet Union establishing a stronghold just miles off our shores, the security and safety of the United States was never more threatened by an outside power since the rickety founding of our government.
As Cuban refugees flooded Miami after the Castro regime took over in 1959, the potential for insurgents was not far from the minds of Americans. It was not long before that the American press had zealously misquoted the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev infamous boast to the West, “We will bury you”.
Given the context of the threat of the Soviet Union, the potential for Cuban insurgents being inserted into the flow of refugees was not unreasonable. Thania Sanchez, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University, points out, “There was certainly legitimate concern about how communist regimes would sneak in spies through refugees.” Sanchez points out newspaper articles with titles such as, “Some Cuban Spies in Refugee Clothing”, which talked about Castro’s plans to insert “Red agents” among the refugees and how it was partly being coordinated with the Kremlin.
Sanchez points out that a report by the New York Times in 1960 noted that, “With few exceptions, those who have fled Cuba in 1960, for instance, could not be labeled as ‘criminals’ by any legitimate concept of justice. Many thousands among the refugees – doubtless a majority- are women and children who are simply tragic victims of a political convulsion with which they had nothing to do.”
The answer to today’s crisis, Sanchez says, is the same as the answer to the crisis faced by many families, including at one time those of Cruz and Rubio.
"The federal and state governments devoted a large number of resources to helping the refugees succeed at integrating and making their communities better,” said Sanchez. She argues that we should do the same with today’s wave of political refugees from Syria and that our treatment of the Cruz and Rubio families was the right decision because it was most consistent with our values. “Had we taken that approach to Cuban refugees back in our past, it would have been a huge mistake.”