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Linda Cunningham: The United States should put children before politics

No one yelled “go back where you came from.” No one made political speeches. There were no hateful protests in the hot sun. No one even grumbled.

Instead, we slipped aside to make room for them for the three-hour trip back to Key West from the Dry Tortugas. Clean clothes, food, water, a promise of shelter and safety when we docked. Their three rickety rowboats, frighteningly small, seaworthy only in the most desperate imagination, passed slowly to our left.

Bienvenida. Welcome to the United States.

For many of us aboard the Yankee Freedom II ferry that day, bienvenida tested the limits of our Spanish. We could smile. Smiles have no geo-political boundaries.

Two dozen Cuban men and women, 20- and 30-somethings all, made it 114 miles and went “dry feet” on the island sand at Fort Jefferson just steps from our picnic tables. They’d spend a few hours with the U.S. immigration folks once we docked in Key West, then disperse to a new life, perhaps with old friends and family. The only question asked: Dry feet?

There is a disconnect between our tolerant, y’all-come Cuban immigration policies and our inexplicable distaste for immigrant children from Central America.

The ferry captain and crew take these pickups in stride. “Happens pretty regularly,” he told me that day a couple years ago. “The Tortugas are a lot closer than making it all the way to Key West or the mainland.”

The rest of us on the ferry that day? We’ll admit to some “watching history happen” thinking, whispering about the heroism and, of course, smiling.

The United States, and particularly Florida, has welcomed Cuban refugees since the early 1960s. U.S. policy is straightforward: If you make it to dry land in a U.S. territory, you are recognized as a legal refugee and you’re on your way to citizenship.

Between 8,000 to 10,000 undocumented Cuban refugees make their ways to the United States annually. That’s in addition to the 20,000 Cubans who enter the country legally each year as part of a Cuba-U.S. agreement brokered in 1994 between then-President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro.

Welcome to the United States. Happy to open our arms — and our government funding — to Cubans.

I’ve thought a lot about that day in the Dry Tortugas as I’ve watched the pushback to the border crossings of almost 60,000 frightened children from Central America.

Do we hate other people’s kids that much? Doubtful. This is political theater ginned up in back rooms to capitalize on a child’s misery to discredit Barack Obama’s presidency. We should be ashamed of using children as political pawns.

There are few differences between the “dry feet” Cubans and these children. They flee their homes in politically oppressed countries that offer little hope for futures of economic, social or government stability. They come to the United States with little more in their backpacks than hope and almost all come to join families already here.

Once past the complex legal and governmental maze, these children, like their Cuban counterparts, are settled with families and friends. With such similarity, why should we not be welcoming these children?

The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix has covered the children’s immigration extensively and dispassionately. The newspaper’s on-site reporting weaves together the plight of these children and the complexity of immigration policy, providing the context in which to begin to understand. Start here at AZCentral with a simple “everything you need to know about the immigrant pipeline.”

Then, keep reading. The ignorance of the pushback is staggering. Protesters, including elected legislators, conflate immigration policy battles with humanitarian aid and comfort. They screech “turn ‘em back at the border” without a nod to existing law prohibiting just such a thing. They fail to understand that since 2008, immigrant children from non-contiguous countries must go through the court system before being returned.

The litany is long; the politics bitterly divisive.

Let us first take care of the children. Grant them safekeeping. Do for them what we would want for our own children. Let us show El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that the United States is a country where children come before politics, where food, water, shelter and due process take precedence over ideological battles. Let us say “bienvenida.”

Let those battles be waged, if waged they must be, among adults when the children are out of the room.

Linda Grist Cunningham is owner and editor of KeyWestWatch Media, a media and project management company in Key West. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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