Giuliani's Immigration Problem

Much as he hates to admit it, Rudy loved (most of) those huddled masses

Today, Giuliani insists that, if elected, he will end illegal immigration in 18 months to three years through a national ID-card program—which is somewhat ironic, given that Reagan dismissed a similar proposal with a joke at a 1981 cabinet meeting, saying: "Maybe we should just brand all the babies." The GOP sponsor of that earlier attempt at an ID card—the since-retired Wyoming senator Alan Simpson—tells the Voice that the rejection of the card doomed the rest of the bill, which attempted, principally through employer sanctions, to restrict future illegals. It was Giuliani's immediate boss, Attorney General William French Smith, who chaired Reagan's immigration task force and dropped the card from his final proposal. If Giuliani has now seen the light on the ID-card issue, he never mentions how the administration he formerly served in trashed it in the past.


Giuliani's record also has special resonance for the state of Florida and its unique Republican base, which includes right-leaning Cuban-Americans, given his handling of the infamous Mariel boatlift. When Reagan and Giuliani both took office in 1981, they inherited the problem of what to do with the 125,000 Cubans that Fidel Castro had literally dumped into the country's lap in the last year of the Carter administration. After Castro's police fired on Cubans trying to emigrate through the Peruvian embassy in 1980, Castro announced that people who wanted to leave the country could do so, and soon 10,000 people had gathered at the embassy. Embarrassed and angered, Castro began dispatching boats jammed with Cubans and bound for Florida out of the town of Mariel, and then, so he could denounce the departing flood as "scum," he emptied some of his jails and mental institutions and put thousands of the unwanted on the same boats. The Carter administration had promised to grant resident status to Mariel Cubans (minus the criminals). But Reagan put a temporary stop to that: Instead, the INS categorized the Mariel refugees as "entrants" for more than three years, an uncertain status that deprived them of family unification and other rights.

The INS (under a statute overseen by Associate Attorney General Giuliani at the DOJ) also ordered the deportation of a Cuban refugee who had stowed away on a freighter that arrived in Florida from Argentina in December 1981—the first time that a Cuban had been barred from entering the U.S. since Castro came to power. When another stowaway was flown directly back to Cuba a month later by the Reagan administration, 5,000 Cubans protested in Miami, and one prominent Hispanic columnist proclaimed it "the end of an era."

photo: Richard Levine

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With special reporting by Samuel Rubenfeld
Research assistance by Kimberly Chin, Mary Grace Mullen, Shaunna Murphy, Shea O'Rourke, Marguerite A. Suozzi, Adam Weinstein, and John Wilwol

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Besides implementing White House policies, Giuliani also ran the detention camps where thousands of the Mariel refugees—some criminal and some not—were held. In response to inquiries from the president about why 950 of the Mariel Cubans were still being detained at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas a year and a half after the Reagan administration had taken office, Giuliani wrote a June 6, 1982, memo explaining that the Cubans "have problems that prevent their release into the community." Since none were criminals, Giuliani listed their problems as: "250 mentally ill and retarded; 400 antisocial; 100 homosexuals; 100 alcoholics or drug users; 100 women, babies, elderly and handicapped." Why gays (a crime in Castro's Cuba) or women with babies, among others, had to be detained was not explained. Giuliani was also in charge of the 1,050 Cubans jailed in an Atlanta prison—many of whom were serious criminals, including murderers and rapists. But a federal judge ruled in 1983 that the Justice Department could not hold the aliens indefinitely without establishing on a case-by-case basis that their continued detention was justified—an indictment of Giuliani's actions. (That decision was ultimately reversed by an appeals court that found the Cubans had no rights.)

In late 1984, Castro and the Reagan administration reached an agreement that permitted the repatriation of the worst of the criminals who had come to America as part of the boatlift. But until then, and throughout the years that Giuliani oversaw Cuban-refugee matters, the Reagan administration had refused to allow up to 23,000 Cubans whose immigration to the U.S. had been approved by Castro. This included 1,500 ex–political prisoners whose entry had been approved by the Carter administration. Over the protests of U.S. officials in Havana who had arranged the transfer of the political prisoners and others who had families in the U.S., Reagan broke off talks with Castro for years.

Despite this record, Giuliani has been courting Cuban votes at large Miami rallies recently, emphasizing his decision as mayor to bar Castro from a 50th-anniversary United Nations event. Ironically, his campaign website boasts—as an example of his counterterrorist prosecutions as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan—that he "put an end to the Omega 7 anti-Castro group," a reference to his 1984 prosecution of the group's founder, Eduardo Arocena, who killed a Castro attaché to Cuba's U.N. mission. But Omega 7 has its supporters among the most hardened anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, and was once so influential that Giuliani wound up honoring one of its leaders at a City Hall ceremony in the '90s.


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photo: Richard Levine
In 1981, Giuliani personally appointed Doris Meissner as acting INS commissioner. In an irony that could come back to haunt the former mayor, Bill Clinton also named her to head the agency when he took office in 1993, and she ran it until she retired in 2000. While Meissner remains a respected expert at the Migration Policy Institute, she is so disdained by the Tom Tancredo right—whose support Giuliani is now seeking—that Bill O'Reilly recently branded her "a disaster," claiming that "her impotence contributed to 9/11."
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