257. "Settling for Less, Where Do the Refugees Go?" National Review, (December 16, 1994), pp. 44-46.


In Key West, Florida, a sign facing Cuba reads: "When the last Cuban leaves Cuba, please turn off the light." Things actually happen the other way around: as Cubans find themselves without light and other essentials, they leave the island in droves. So far the focus has been on the refugees intercepted at sea and detained at Guantanamo Bay. We rarely hear about the roughly 30,000 Cubans who have landed in the U.S. this year. Their experience can teach us a lesson about how to address social problems.

As the recent waves of Cubans washed ashore on the coasts of Florida, Governor Lawton Chiles called on the Federal Government for help. His appeal brought to mind how the government handled the 125,266 Cubans who arrived during the Mariel exodus of 1980. I know a bit about this story, because at the time I was serving in the White House, with an august title (Senior Advisor) but with rather little influence, as you will see.

The Marielitos generated panic in the corridors of power. In the preceding year anti-immigrant emotions had mounted as other countries refused to accept additional refugees from Southeast Asia, forcing the U.S. to double (to 168,000) its yearly admission of boat people. Nationwide, social services were overloaded and the cry was out for federal help. The White House convened a working group to formulate a new refugee policy. As the only resident sociologist, I was put on this task force.

An implicit theme ran through the draft recommendations generated before my arrival: the task force wanted to federalize the problem. After calling the situation a "crisis," the reports urged that all local, private, and public resources be pooled in a master "coordinated" effort. The alphabet soup of federal agencies--HEW (later HHS), DoL (Labor), and HUD--would coordinate the effort.

Coordinating the Coordinators

Of course, these agencies themselves required coordination. It was suggested that the U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs crown the federal hierarchy of coordinated coordinators. Concerned that all this might be insufficient, the draft report added that the President in particular, but also the Vice President, the Domestic Policy Council, the U.S. refugee-affairs office, and the secretaries of various Cabinet departments would provide the leadership required to translate this national commitment into domestic receptivity and understanding. The report concluded by stating explicitly what had previously been implied: "If confusion and fragmentation which exist in many areas of refugee concentration are to be ameliorated, the Federal Government will need to designate--and fund--lead agencies to carry out this responsibility."

I suggested that an emergency coalition of voluntary associations, working with local communities, could handle the situation better than the Federal Government. The rest of the task force was intrigued by the notion, but Victor Palmieri, recently appointed as the U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs, argued that the voluntary agencies would never agree to assume such a heavy responsibility.

My reply was to visit these associations and ask them. The first stop was Bill Aramony, head of the United Way. He was reluctant to accept the financial obligations involved but offered to put the executives of the United Way to work coordinating the voluntary drive, exactly what the government felt had to be its mission. Next he ushered me into a meeting that included representatives of Catholic Charities of America, the Salvation Army, and the National Urban League. They said that if others would assist, they would carry their share of the burden.

Next stop was George Elsey of the Red Cross, who was enthusiastic. I got the impression that he wanted a dramatic, visible mission to get everybody's juices flowing. The reaction of Landrum Bolling, chairman of the Council of Foundations, was similarly positive. And so it went.

When I reported my findings, with a bit of self-satisfaction, a new objection was raised. Dealing with refugees was the turf of the small charitable organizations that have long worked on behalf of particular refugee groups. I was told that they would be deeply offended if "their" mission was taken over by the "big boys," with whom they had less than harmonious relations. Federalization would keep the White House out of this conflict.

I tried one last maneuver. I suggested that the government urge the voluntary groups to consider a division of labor under which the small ones would stick to the jobs with which they had the most experience--overseas camps and first help on arrival. The big groups would take on the difficult tasks of finding or creating jobs, housing, and so on.

Time had run out. Palmieri wrote that my ideas were "useful," but he preferred other options and hence was not going to rely on mine in "any major way." Soon President Carter authorized him to follow the traditional pattern of throwing a federal agency at the problem. The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Agency, with Palmieri at the helm, took on the mission. Congress appropriated additional funds and authorized additional bureaucrats. Palmieri hired people, drafted plans, prepared guidelines, contacted federal agencies, and so on.

Disappearing Act

By the time he got to Miami, most of the 125,000 Cubans had disappeared. The press stressed that the refugees included roughly 5,000 hard-core criminals and mental patients, who remained unsettled. But what about the 120,000 others?

Most of them were taken care of by their own. Family members already settled in the U.S., friends, Catholic Charities, and Cuban-American associations housed them, even if it meant doubling up; provided some clothing and cash; informally began acculturation by teaching essential English words; and employed them, initially at low wages and often off the books. Within nine months all but 6,900 Cubans were settled to the point where they stopped being public charges.

The daily press focused on the "failures" of the resettlement efforts. On December 12, 1980, the New York Times reported, under the headline "Many Cubans Remain Hard to Place in the U.S.," that 8,000 had not yet been placed, ignoring the overwhelming majority who had already been helped. A February 10, 1981, Washington Post article, "Resettling of Cuban Refugees Is Proceeding at a Slow Pace," told the story of one Luis Valladres, who was "finally" being taken care of.

As rafts started to arrive again last August, Cuban-Americans who came here in 1980 were interviewed about the newcomers. Long settled themselves, they reported a readiness to take in refugees. Typical is the story of Pedro Cuarda. Weeks after his own arrival, he had made his home in Duluth, Minnesota, with the only Cuban residing in America whom he knew. Two years later, he moved to Alaska to make more money. In 1985 he relocated to Tampa, where he took a job as a cook in a Spanish kitchen. He, his wife, and their child now live in a three-bedroom apartment. They figure on taking up to seven newly arrived Cubans into their home.

Helping new immigrants become full-fledged and productive citizens is often taken on by neighborhoods of people from the same ethnic background as the immigrants. This holds not merely for Cubans; it is evident in Koreatown in Los Angeles, Chinatown in New York City, the Russian immigrant community of Brighton Beach, the Vietnamese section of Arlington, Virginia, and elsewhere throughout the country. These communities are following a long American tradition of mutual-help associations providing immigrants with everything from credit to health care.

Helper's High

The power of such communities to carry out social missions is not limited to refugee resettlement. My favorite example is from Seattle. When cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) became available to prevent heart-attack victims from dying or suffering severe brain damage, Seattle did not add scores of ambulances and crews at huge public cost. Instead, the Red Cross, corporations, and civic associations trained about 400,000 residents in CPR. Now if you must have a heart attack, it is best that you have it in Seattle. Unless you choose to do it in an alley at 3 A.M., you are likely to be reached within seconds by a bystander trained in CPR, who will restart your heart and keep it going until an ambulance arrives.

Another example: While shopping in West Hampton, Long Island, a town that can afford to pay for government services, I was struck by the response to firehouse sirens. The young volunteers who rushed to help showed signs of what psychologists call "the helper's high." In a world awash with cynicism, these young people were clearly proud of what they were doing. They seemed to have a higher sense of meaning and self-fulfillment. Voluntarily discharging social missions carries with it this intrinsic reward.

To sustain such community endeavors, we need to prevent government from pre-empting communities. The more the government takes over providing services, the flabbier and more anemic communities become. And the flabbier and more anemic they become, the more the Victor Palmieris of the world will argue that we cannot let the communities attend to this or that social mission. The next several months in Florida will provide another demonstration project in reinventing government--doing more by doing less.

Mr. Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community and founder of the Communitarian Network.

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