One of the first duties of any government is to protect its borders. As a nation needing immigrants, the United States historically had an expansive interpretation of that dictum. But in more recent times, blessed by a plentiful population, the U.S. has adopted the more universal practice of admitting only those with wanted skills or compelling social or political reasons to immigrate.
Since Fidel Castro came to power, 35 years ago, Cuba has been a special case. Any of its citizens who could make it to our shores was automatically granted residence. The result: a large anti-Castro, anti-communist Cuban-American community that votes conservative and Republican.
Just as hard cases make bad law, so hard foreign policy issues can give rise to awkward, outdated diplomacy. Granted, economic conditions are tough in Cuba. Granted, Castro enforcers commit human rights violations constantly. But in comparison with many other thuggish regimes around the world, Cuba is hardly distinctive. And Fidel's Kremlin allies from Cold War days are history.
In 1980, Mr. Castro took advantage of U.S. policy openings when he launched the Mariel boat lift. More than 125,000 opponents of his regime, plus a hefty assortment of criminals and other undesirables, were encouraged to leave. Americans welcomed them -- at first. But as south Florida was overwhelmed and unrest broke out among immigrants placed in detention, the U.S. soon was in no mood to let another boat lift happen.
When Mr. Castro sought a replay last year, President Clinton took action that proved sustainable only on a short-term basis. Cuban rafters who made it to the Florida coast were admitted as usual. But those intercepted on the high seas were given the choice of return to their homeland or indefinite detention at Guantanamo. As part of his response, the president barred the sending of cash remittances to Cuba and guaranteed 20,000 immigrant slots a year to Cubans who would apply through official channels in Havana.
He got temporary respite, but no more. The Pentagon, spending $1 million a day, grew fearful of riots by restless young male detainees at Guantanamo. And Cuba threatened another boat lift if punitive Republican legislation were passed.
Confronted with a potential foreign policy crisis, Mr. Clinton this week scrapped existing regulations and said any Cubans coming here illegally would be forcibly repatriated. He also said detainees at Guantanamo who were not trouble-makers would be put at the top of the list of legal entrants.
This is not a happy arrangement but a necessary one. Critics should be required to say what they would have done to head off disturbances at Guantanamo or another Mariel boat lift. It is also part and parcel of the tougher, more decisive behavior Mr. Clinton has exhibited since the Oklahoma City bombing. Always a politician, he might have lost the Cuban-American vote in Miami but won all of Florida in next year's election.