If tomorrow a U.S. Coast Guard cutter should come upon a boatload of refugees in the Caribbean, one of two things would happen.
If the refugees were from Cuba, our sailors would rescue them. The Cubans would be granted asylum status in this country and, after a year, they would be eligible to become permanent resident aliens of the United States. In five more years they could become U.S. citizens.
If, however, the boat were full of Haitians, the refugees would not be granted asylum. They would not be allowed into the United States. They would be turned back to Haiti.
Why the difference? Good question. To which there is no very good answer.
Our government chooses to believe that anybody who flees Cuba is automatically a political refugee because he is fleeing a communist dictatorship.
And we also set aside 3,000 refugee slots each year for Cubans who wish to apply to come here.
There have been no such slots set aside for Haitians. And Haitians are not automatically presumed to be political refugees if they flee Haiti.
In other words, if you flee a repressive communist regime, we welcome you.
If you flee a repressive military-backed regime, we don't.
It is not impossible to get into the United States from Haiti. But it is difficult.
You must prove you are a political and not an economic refugee. And you must now prove it while you are still in Haiti.
The U.S. will not allow you to escape first.
Some background: An elected government in Haiti was overthrown on Sept. 30 by a military coup and a new, illegal government was installed.
The United States opposes this illegal government and has joined in economic sanctions against it.
But the United States says most of the people who now wish to leave Haiti are mere "economic" refugees, who want to come to America just to eat Big Macs and buy color TVs. And we will not let such people in.
Don't Cuban refugees, however, want much the same thing? (In fact, haven't just about all refugees, including my ancestors and yours, come to America seeking better economic opportunity?) Well, yes.
But the Cubans are fleeing evil communists, while the Haitians are fleeing evil non-communists.
Just what significance that has when you are on the wrong end of the truncheon or the rifle butt, I do not know.
But the United States makes an awfully big deal out of it.
Which is why we will not let Haitians escape and then let them try to prove they are deserving of political asylum once they are here.
Instead, we are turning their boats back.
Instead, we are telling them to walk into the U.S. embassy in Haiti under the watchful eyes of their own government's secret police and make an application to come to the United States.
And if the army then calls on their house that night and asks them what they were doing at the U.S. embassy and roughs them up or even kills them, well, that's not our fault. If people had any sense they never would have been born in Haiti in the first place.
And U.S. policy remains: Cuba, si; Haiti, no.
There is another key difference between Cubans and Haitians besides their governments:
Most Cubans are of Hispanic ancestry.
Most Haitians are of African ancestry.
And while Cubans come in a variety of hues, they are generally lighter-skinned than the dark-skinned people of Haiti.
"And that is part of the reason we don't want more Haitians in the United States," said Bruce Morrison, a former congressman who chaired the House subcommittee on immigration and now is a private attorney specializing in immigration law.
"There are," he went on, "other unflattering and untrue stereotypes about Haitians: That they all have AIDS and practice voodoo and are primitive. In fact, Haitians are an extraordinarily hard-working people, people of great character despite coming out of awful poverty.
"The trouble they have is that they are not only black, but very black. And, in America, that is not a good thing to be. In America, that is the worst thing you can be."
MONDAY: A War With Haiti?