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A distinction without a difference

To the demigods of U.S. immigration policy, the distinction has always been simple: Cubans enter the United States illegally to escape communist oppression; Haitians only do it to try to earn enough to keep from starving to death. So of course the selfish Haitians are routinely shipped back home or imprisoned in a medieval detention center, while Cubans are welcomed with open arms.

There has always been something wrong with this picture, but nowadays it's becoming downright mystifying, as more and more Cuban refugees freely admit that they're coming for the money.

"Though they still complain of a lack of freedoms in Cuba, today's boat people dwell with grim detail on an existence without necessities .


. that has taken hold since the collapse of communist partners in Europe," said a report this week in the New York Times. But this is clearly a case where poverty is relative. One refugee spoke with disgust of his salary that had dwindled to $300 a month in Cuba, though that's roughly what a typical Haitian can expect to earn in a whole year.

The great majority of people from other countries in the hemisphere are also denied political asylum. But most tragic are the Haitians, who usually make the journey out of pure desperation to escape the political terror and unspeakable squalor of the worst poverty in the Western hemisphere. Even when the political situation there was far more threatening than under current President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the United States steadfastly contended that Haitians were economic, not political, refugees.

Who are we kidding? There is no freedom without food. This distinction without a difference was always a suspect combination of anti-communist paranoia, Cuban-immigrant political clout and U.S. bias against poor, black Haitians; now it's just an anachronism. Not to begrudge Cubans the welcome they have received _ which has cost Florida some $400-million _ but common decency calls for fair play for the whole Caribbean in immigration policy from now on.

As Florida braces for the largest influx of Cubans since the 1980 Mariel boatlift, that's something to ponder for a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon for the tempest-tossed poor.