David R. Henderson  

From the Vault: Cuban Immigrants, 1994

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In going through some articles this weekend, I found the following, reprinted in full. It's titled, "Cubans Want Freedom, Not Welfare" and was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 1994. The Chicago Tribune published an almost-identical version around the same time. It's still relevant today:

Start with two principles. First, no one has the right to force us to pay for immigrants to the United States. Second, no one has the right to prevent people from escaping tyranny. Any just system of laws must adhere to these principles. The principles do not contradict each other. But the defenders of the welfare state have forced us to choose between them. In doing so, they have shown how truly corrupt the welfare state is.

What makes responsible Cubans risk their lives and their children's by crossing the ocean in fragile rafts? Did they just hear about our food stamps and generous unemployment benefits? Hardly. Those aren't worth risking life and limb.

So what do Cubans want? One thing. Freedom. The freedom to live in a relatively peaceful society where it is not (yet) a crime to work to feed one's family. The vast majority of our ancestors who immigrated to the United States got no welfare when they arrived here. It's not what they came for. It's not what the vast majority of Cubans want either.

But, some say, people leaving Cuba want just to escape poverty, not communism. How could we tell? Communism causes mass poverty everywhere it is tried. And why does it matter? These desperate refugees didn't reach their conclusions about the effects of communism as the result of a college bull session. They object to communism because of the horrendous human suffering that it has caused them.

Our welfare state and its leaders, in particular, President Bill Clinton and Florida's governor Lawton Chiles, give us a choice. Either we let Cubans escape tyranny and come to the United States, in which case we must subsidize them, or we refuse to subsidize their living here, in which case the government intervenes to prevent Cubans from coming.

Because Chiles is, appropriately, concerned about spending Florida taxpayers' money on new immigrants, he wants to prevent them from coming. And Clinton apparently agrees. He persuaded Fidel Castro to forcibly prevent Cubans from emigrating.

Note the irony. Clinton leads one of the freest countries in the world, a country built on the idea that each person has inalienable rights that no government can violate. He persuades the leader of a totalitarian government to re-adopt a policy that most clearly distinguishes free states from slave ones. The judges in the Dred Scott decision would have been proud of their willing student.

How did we reach a point where a governor concerned about spending lobbies a U.S. president to consign people to tyranny? The cause was our inhumane welfare state. The recent debate about the Cubans points up its absolute moral bankruptcy.

We often think of the welfare state as benevolent, the institutional equivalent of a kind uncle who bought you ice cream. It's not.

The comparison is unfair to the uncle. The uncle was willingly spending his own money. The welfare state, by contrast, uses taxes to grab other people's money. And even when the uncle is short of money, he lets you out to spend your own money if you have it. He doesn't lock you in a closet.

The welfare state does the equivalent of locking you in a closet. Instead of letting the Cubans decide whether they want to come here unsubsidized, it locks them in Cuba. The main people responsible are the welfare-rights activists who sued to achieve this result and the judges who decided in their favor.

Notice also the awkward position that Clinton has put our military in. He has ordered the military to pick up Cubans who are trying to leave their island hell to come here. His policies, like those of former President George Bush, require the military to use force against innocent foreigners, rather than engage in their only proper duty under the Constitution, which is to defend the United States from foreign enemies.

There's a simple solution. First, end our embargo against Cuba. The embargo hurts politically powerless Cubans most and sends them a mixed message about what our society is all about. On the one hand, we trumpet freedom; on the other hand, our government does not allow us one of the most basic freedoms of all--the right to trade. By instead letting innocent. joyous capitalism prevail, we would drive a stake in Castro's monstrous dictatorship.

Second, allow in all the Cubans who want to come, on one condition: that for 20 years they forswear all the trappings of the welfare state--food stamps, welfare and unemployment benefits.

Remember the words of Emma Lazarus, the young daughter of Jewish immigrants, inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. She talks of aspiring immigrants as "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Not yearning for food stamps.

The link to Bryan's article in my Encyclopedia is one I added. The article did not exist then and Bryan was 23.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
matt writes:

Hmm.... Thought experiment... What would happen if there was no welfare state and open immigration. In some ways this was the natural state of America. However it was at time where it was more difficult and expensive to get here. Now that the world has a higher population and getting to America is cheap. What would happen. Shanty towns outside every major city. Poor starving people who don't speak english and can't find work. When the economy is doing badly mass starvation in the shanty towns. Do you think this won't have externalities that will affect you in your comfortable home. If there was any Karma in the world you would own a farm in South Africa near the Nigerian border. See how well you moral compass guides you!

matt writes:

I meant the zimbabwian border

david writes:

The welfare state isn't the problem, as noted near the end of the article. The concept of immigrants who are denied welfare benefits and are taxed more heavily, but get to enjoy freedom, is not a new one: we call these "guest worker programs". There is no reason to limit it to Cuba, of course. But as such, the problem isn't the welfare state.

Anti-immigration feeling predates the welfare state. The problem here is that immigrants compete down lower- and middle-class wages, which is why every successive wave of immigrants to America has despised the next.

To be sure, the welfare gain by said immigrants is going to be much greater than the losses by existing domestic workers. And international trade ensures that jobs simply will look for said workers overseas instead if they aren't allowed to come here. But politics is unlikely to be sensible in this area - especially not when the American right is unable to shake off its bluntly racist image, and the American left remains dogged by paranoia over income inequality, which splits the pro-immigration ethnic and economic groups into minorities in each party.

But there's hope: demographically, the political left is shedding support from their industrial union base - simply because unions are getting less significant - and gaining support from ethnic minority groups and unions groups less likely to be threatened by a wave of poor immigration (English-language teaching, professional associations, etc.).

David R. Henderson writes:

matt writes:
If there was any Karma in the world you would own a farm in South Africa near the Zimbabwe border. See how well your moral compass guides you!

Me: Hmm. I'm a farmer who wants cheap labor. Not a tough call. If you're going to challenge my "moral compass," Matt, don't give me a softball. :-)

Marcus writes:

David, that is not what it was about. Clinton and Chiles were not bothered about budgetary issues.

Sending immigrants back to Cuba is about punishing Cubans for voting Republican.

Offering to subsidizing Cuban immigrants was a carrot to get Cubans to vote Democrat. In other words, standard Democrat strategy, use our money to buy votes.

matt writes:

David,

Funny answer but you're missing my point, and it's my fault for not stating my assumptions. A good friend of mine his family fled South Africa, and left their large holdings of land because of the violence, because they couldn't protect themselves, they now live in Canada. In thinking about growth we have learned that liberal institutions aren't enough to spur it alone, cultural practices and assumptions we take for granted that we can't even imagine others don't share are a big part of it. If the US had open borders policy we would be overrun by people who don't share our values and its not certain our institutions can survive. The fact that we survived one large wave from Europe isn't proof (just one piece of evidence) that we can survive another even larger wave from other places which have more alien values. I feel like south Africa is a test case. All these people outside a system set up by invaders, to their exclusion, can the the new majority absorb these institutions successfully? Will retribution for past injustices scare productive people away? If South Africa becomes a poor nation, governed like Zimbabwe then we will have our answer.

Having cheap labor means you are near people with low human capital. That is often not a safe or pleasant situation.

David R. Henderson writes:

@matt,
Just asking here; not trying to set a trap; just trying to understand. Did your friend's family flee South Africa to escape violence from immigrants or to escape violence from South Africans?

Tom West writes:

An interesting and compelling essay.

Essentially it pits two warring moral imperatives: the moral imperative to allow someone to escape tyranny, and the moral imperative to not allow a fellow citizen to suffer in poverty when a nation has the means to alleviate it.

And yes, I think that for a great many of us, the responsibility that we feel for the welfare of a given stranger is geographically linked. Assuming that people had the means to alleviate it, most would feel contempt for someone who would knowingly allow a next-door neighbor to starve, uneasy about citizens of a city that would allow people in their city to starve, discomfort about a nation that allowed any of its citizens to starve, and a twinge that we allow other people in the world to starve.

I think this feeling is built into humanity. Thus I suspect that even with such a promise of not using welfare, etc., the wariness with which many would approach accepting refugees would be an acknowledgment of the fact that in the end, most of us cannot escape that second moral imperative that condemns those who would allow a fellow citizen to suffer the ravages of (extreme) poverty.

Thank you for the thought-provoking piece.

matt writes:

Both,there are wars going on between Nigerian gangs and locals. The locals are non-plussed about immigration from neighboring countries too, not that safe to hire from both groups. However my point is that the indigenous population can serve as model for immigrants overwhelming a system. Since they were excluded and oppressed before, and they now constitute a majority holding political power. They are very non-western in their orientation. Its not a perfect example but if western aspects of the old institutions which led to first world living conditions for whites can be continued then that says something about my fears, if however they are lost then we are just arguing about the placement of the tipping point. The US could probably absorb the population of Haiti but what if the country was 2x as big, or 3x, when do poor institutions become contagious.

mulp writes:

Normalizing relations with Cuba including immigration from Cuba understand immigration rules was the objective of both the Carter and Clinton administrations, and they were vilified by conservatives for pursuing those policies. It was the Republican Congress which codified severe restriction on relations with Cuba, largely along the lines of the Reagan policy.

Reagan's major Cuba policy accomplishment was sending back to Cuba 2700 Cubans that had come to the US when Castro was letting anyone who wanted to leave to leave. Remember the Mariel boatlift? This did drive long time Miami residents out of their homes because English was no longer the native language of much of Miami. Carter accepted Cubans at the rate of 30-40,000 a month with no restrictions.

Obama has been criticized for returning to the Carter policy on Cuba, but that was also the Clinton policy direction as well.

Gabbe writes:

I believe that cuban inmigration must stop as well as their priviliges in this country.
They are hard working people but I seen with my own eyes cubans that recently came with welfare, Insurance, food stamps$600 a month plus aifair paid by our goverment and this couple is bringing 12 more peolpe in a matter of months,with our effort.
Law mus be equal for everybody, many countries in this world have hunger, children without clothes and more. Is very simple for them 1 year and 1 day you are a USA Resident.
Is against cubans but this could apply for anyone who gets anything for free with our effort.
And here is the main question:
If Fidel castro ends and Cuba change its politycal beleive, do you know the massive inmigration that USA will have?
Lets help them to stay and be a free country.

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