Anyone who wants to know what’s wrong with the Republican Party these days need only listen to George W. Bush talk about blocking Haitian refugees from reaching our shores. He has dishonored our national heritage, with nary a whisper of complaint from Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg or any G.O.P. member of Congress from New York.
At a time when his C.I.A. director was telling Congress that Al Qaeda has copycats ready to strike at America, Mr. Bush had the Coast Guard on alert-not to inspect container ships that might be carrying dirty bombs, but to turn back Haitians who were fleeing economic and political ruin. The Haitians, it seems, are not in the same category as Castro-hating Cubans, who are welcomed here and who quickly become Republicans.
Ignoring the fact that no Haitians flew airplanes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, even the Department of Homeland Security got into the act, coordinating efforts to prevent the Haitians from seeking respite on our shores.
This is not the first time that a President has used the Coast Guard to deny refugees a safe haven. Franklin Roosevelt issued orders to have U.S. ships accompany the S.S. St. Louis , en route to Cuba and packed with 937 European Jews escaping Hitler, as it sailed from Hamburg and passed our shoreline in 1939.
New York realtor Egon Salmon, who was 15 at the time, vividly remembers being turned away from Cuba and watching as the Coast Guard shadowed the ship, making sure that nobody swam to shore. “It is a difficult emotion to describe,” he told The Observer. “I was with my mom, my sister and cousin. Most of us thought we were going back to a certain death.” Indeed, more than half the passengers eventually died at the hands of the Nazis after the ship was forced to return to Europe.
A year before, F.D.R. had addressed a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution as “my fellow immigrants,” a reminder that the women, whose forebears could be traced back to the Mayflower , all came from some other place: “The Uprooted,” as historian Oscar Handlin called them in the title of his 1951 book about immigration.
Handlin’s book should be placed in Republican goodie bags at their convention in New York this summer, where nice white folks and a few showcased minorities will be busy passing resolutions on such important national-security issues like a constitutional ban on gay marriage, another distraction that Mr. Bush has chosen to spread hatred throughout the land.
The Haitian announcement apparently is part of the G.O.P. strategy for this year’s Presidential campaign. Strategists call it “appealing to your base,” and in the case of race, it can be traced back to 1965, when a prescient Lyndon Johnson, signing the Voting Rights Act, told an aide, “We have just lost the South for generations.” Richard Nixon understood this all too well in 1968, when he ran on a thinly disguised appeal to George Wallace voters, appealing to the “Silent Majority.” Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani understood it in New York. Mr. Koch spoke out in favor of the death penalty and against “poverty pimps” in 1977. During Mr. Giuliani’s eight years in City Hall, “America’s Mayor” refused to speak to many black elected officials. Ronald Reagan knew it in 1980 when he opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., and spoke about “states’ rights.”
Of course, Mr. Bush is no stranger to lowering himself to appeal to his “base.” He spoke at Bob Jones University in the 2000 campaign, a place that bars interracial dating and had a rabid anti-Catholic bigot at its helm. For that, he received a mild rebuke from Catholic Republicans like Peter King of Long Island, who so far has been silent on the Haitian immigration issue-a strange stance for someone who lobbied to allow the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, into this country in 1994.
Mr. King and Governor Pataki, whose grandparents were Hungarian immigrants, should be telling the President to change his Haitian policy. They should be making powerful speeches, convincing their constituents, challenging them to study their own history as boat people.
Mayor Bloomberg should be heard from as well. He is our temporary trustee of the immigrant dream in City Hall. We are a great town because of those who came before us-escaping death or economic deprivation. We haven’t always lived up to the standards that we talk about every July 4; indeed, Jews and Catholics had to suffer under Peter Stuyvesant, who was a bigot in every fiber of his being.
Messrs. Pataki and Bloomberg can no longer have it both ways when it comes to the Republican Party. They should be standing outside the G.O.P. convention handing out copies of the Emma Lazarus poem. Once you get past the part about “wretched refuse,” she memorably sums up the country and our city: “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.” It doesn’t say: “No Haitians need apply.”
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