Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dos Marielitos

Towards the end of our South Florida vacation last month, I had the extreme pleasure in being treated to a fantastic Cuban lunch by the matriarch of my wife’s family, “Prima Olga”.  She is a very spry and chatty 93 year old who, along with her family and 125,000 others in 1980, escaped Cuba during the infamous Mariel Boatlift.  While filling our stomachs with her fabulous pollo con arroz, fried plantains, and avocado salad, Olga filled our ears with anecdotes from her native country—why she fled, the boat ride, landing on Key Biscayne, the F.B.I’s treatment.  There were so many, but most seemed to revolve around the necessities of life and in particular, her favorite pastime—cooking.

Like most Cuban refugees, Olga has no love for Fidel Castro.  She blasted his regime and the suffering it has caused on the loved ones she left behind.  She described the food shortages and opined that Castro must have directed his people to sow up the bottoms of chickens because there were no eggs.  When my wife puzzled at her meal, wondering why there was only white breast meat in the pollo con arroz when it’s traditionally served with all parts, Olga said the old bony parts where all she had in Cuba, so she would never eat that again; she was in America and now had a choice.

Olga was saddened by some of her grandchildren who decided to stay in Cuba.  She sends them money on a regular basis and would send them more, but “the thieves”, as she put it—meaning the outrageous transaction fees from the banks and the governments that added up to almost sixty percent of the total sent, and actual robbers who will cut your throat for a Franklin—kept her from sending more.  $200 a month, she said, became around $80, which, because of the Cuban economy, translated into only about half of her granddaughter’s budget for coffee and eggs alone.

The graceful elder woman spoke carefully of thieves when her nearly 50-year-old grandson entered her one-bedroom Hialeah apartment and sat with his young family.  Orlando spent the entirety of his youth living under The Revolution and, like most others, stole to survive.
“I fought with the policeman [sic] in Havana all my life.”  He said, graciously interrupting his meal to give me his story.
“I fought with them and spent a lot of my life in the prison, but what am I gonna do?  Seven dollars, they give us.  Seven dollars, and for what?  Nothing.  They don’t pay us to work, so we don’t work,” he laughed.
I could tell his laughter was only covering up the pain of his youth.  He then gave me a story that eerily resembled Tony Montana’s from Scarface.
“Before they sent me over, you see, I was in the prison.  They shaved our heads except for the very front, you know.  They leave a bit up there so they can tell you’re a convict, but a couple of months before they sent us over, they didn’t cut it like that.  And, they made some other mistakes too,” he said.
“Our passports were all nice and colored like the ones you saw from other countries, or from the rich.  The others they sent over (in the boatlift), those were just the black and white kind.  And when we got over here, they put us in those camps and questioned us all the time.”  He looked at me and laughed again, “I told them I was in sanitation!”  Of course, he was joking since that actually is a line from Scarface.
“They sent a lot of bad people over here, I can tell you.  Over ten thousand, probably and that’s why you got a lot of stealing around here.  They don’t learn.  I fought the policeman once over here too until I met this one.  He’s a commander with Miami now, but back then, he was just a new cop on the street, you know.  He taught me what that America was different; that you didn’t have to take; that you could keep what you earned and the government wasn’t trying to take it away.”

I knew what Orlando meant, but I couldn’t help but smirk a little after his hast statement.  He continued, “So I’ve been straight ever since and that cop is now one of my best friends.  After thirty years, we still talk every week.”

What an incredible success story, I thought, but I had to know if he ever intended returning to his homeland if things were different; if Castro were gone and Cuba transformed into a true democracy; to help rebuild a once-great country.  Orlando’s answered, “I’ve been in this country for thirty years now—longer than I lived in Cuba.  America is my country now.  I am happy to be here, and I am happy at how things turned out.  Look at my family (his wife and two young daughters).  I could not have so much happiness in Cuba.”
“Not even to help rebuild?”  I asked.
“Yeah, sure—I go install some windows over there or something, sure, but those people…  It will take years—generations— to overcome their behavior.  You give them everything all at once and they will just steal it from each other.  It is very sad, you know.  I feel for them, but I won’t go back.”

It seems Cuba has a very long road to recovery and with anything else, that recovery must start at the beginning.  The sooner Cuba begins change, the better, I thought.  America must also do everything to facilitate that change.  The embargo hasn’t shooed Castro away, nor benefitted the Cuban citizenry in any way.  If it did anything, perhaps it helped some wealthy corn farmers in the high-fructose syrup business when cheap cane sugar disappeared, and allowed the Castro brothers a lifetime in power.  But that’s mostly about Cuba.  What about America today?  I asked Orlando about his thoughts on the current situation in Arizona.  Like many outspoken legal immigrants, he too had a strong opinion on the matter.

“I tell you, that sheriff is right about the one thing: those bad people that he catch?  He does the right thing putting them out there in the heat, you know.  Let them suffer the same as anyone in the camps,” he said.  But he didn’t agree that anyone should get hassled on the street for a visa or green card just because they look like a Mexican.  I agree with this and apparently, so does the Arizona governor, but even though she has stated so much, and gone to great lengths emphasizing the law’s amendments that prevent undue treatment, the media seemingly ignores the intent.

Nonetheless, checking immigration status isn’t so much the issue as the problem of unscrupulous employers hiring illegals in the first place.  If you’re a fan of simple logic, you may agree that there is a cause and effect for almost anything.  Immigrants come here because at some point they heard a story of a better life in the States.  Employers hire them because the locals don’t want to do the job at the going wage, and the going wage is so low because American consumers don’t take well to inflation.  Simple economics, right? 

Employers also hire illegals because our government has the cost of sponsoring legitimate immigrants so high, the poverty-level immigrant virtually has no chance.  Admittedly, I was fully ignorant regarding the real cost of a green card.  I thought it was a simple matter of filing the paperwork and waiting out the government machine’s grinding gears.  Orlando laughed, “No, no!  Those things cost more than $5,000, you know!” 

After some Googling, Orlando wasn’t very far off.  The actual cost, after filing and lawyers fees, ranges anywhere from $6,500 to almost $18,000.  I also made the shocking discover that both Presidents Bush and Obama sought to significantly raise this cost, further raising the barrier of legal immigration.  Huh?
Call me crazy, but doesn’t it seem logical that if you want illegal immigrants to follow a legitimate path to citizenry, barriers should be lower and not raised?  Doesn’t it make sense to make it easier for employers to hire people willing to perform jobs that others won’t do?  Doesn’t it make sense to create taxpayers instead of facilitating transgression?  Both Prima Olga and Orlando partook, and then witnessed Cuba’s suffering most of their lives.  Now, they see its viciousness repeated at the Mexican border in Arizona.  “Those people—they suffer now too and it is the government to blame,” said Orlando.
“What does it look like to them that a person from Cuba can make the dry land over here (referencing our long-running wet-foot/dry-foot policy) and they can stay, but the Mexicans are sent back.  Incredible”

Just like any other polarizing litmus issue such as abortion, drugs, or offshore drilling, illegal immigration has become the row de jour with most people taking extreme sides while only an isolated few dare tread the middle.  To one side, there are the Sympathetics.  These are the people that believe our nation was founded on immigration, and immigrants should have a shot at the American Dream like anyone else.  On the other side beats the drum of the Hard Liners who chant, “What don’t you understand about the word ‘illegal’.  They aren’t immigrants; they’re illegal immigrants.  These are the people that freeload on the infrastructure we pay dearly to maintain.  Is that fair?”  Of course not, but that argument completely ignores our unreported, uncalculated economic dependency on cheap labor.

While those extremists understand the merits of each extreme, they tend to discount anyone in the middle as the Uninformed Undecided.  On one hand, unfortunately, some of those detractors are quite correct.  There is a certain percentage of completely disinterested people.  On the other hand, there is a certain number of people who don’t agree with the notion of a “side” at all.  Count me in that group.  Critical thinking and active discussion amongst the key players quickly uncovers a much more complex problem than the one “solved” by policy extremists.  Take a look at these excellent articles and give it some thought before choosing a side. 

You may find that both sides are looking in the wrong direction.

To show the past and present administrations positions…

Read carefully!
T. Nelson Taylor | Official Site | DusT | Bolita