Why not some compassion, even temporarily?


He was 6 years old.

His mother was bringing him illegally to the United States from their Latino homeland in the hope of a better life, but she died on the way.

He survived.

U.S. immigration authorities placed him with his father’s relatives in Florida. But his father, who had remained at home in their nation, wanted him back, and filed for custody in the U.S. court system.

The boy’s paternal relatives in Florida resisted, and the case worked its way up through the courts, which eventually ruled that the father’s rights outweighed the desires of the other relatives.

Republican members of Congress tried to pass a bill that would have granted the boy U.S. citizenship, but couldn’t round up enough votes.

The mayor of the city where his relatives lived refused to cooperate with federal authorities in their proceedings to repatriate him. When Border Patrol agents arrived at the relatives’ home to carry out the court order, rocks and bottles were thrown at them, and a riot transpired in the city, with property burned and tear gas deployed to disperse protesters.

The court order was carried out, and the boy was reunited with his father back home.

It all sounds pretty strange in today’s context.

The boy was Elian Gonzales, and his homeland was Cuba.

It was 15 years ago. He and his mother were among 14 Cubans who left home in November 1999 in a small aluminum boat with a bad engine, bound for Miami.

The boat gave out, and Elian’s mother and 10 others drowned in a storm. Elian and two others were rescued by fishermen, who turned them over to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Because of American policy toward Cuba, emigrants from that country are treated differently from those of other Western Hemisphere nations. If a Cuban can make it to shore in the United States, he or she is allowed to request asylum as a political refugee, and they are generally allowed to stay (the “dry feet” rule).

After a year, they can apply for U.S. residency. (The court’s decision in favor of Elian’s father was an exception, with family ties trumping usual procedures.)

There is no such provision of refugee status for those who emigrate here from other Latino nations, regardless of the causes for their flight.

Large swaths of Central American countries, for example, are now controlled by powerful drug cartels, which force children to work for them or be killed together with their relatives. Thugs enter schoolrooms, threaten teachers and press kids into the gangs.

Thousands of youngsters have left their homes and headed north on a dangerous journey to the U.S. border, taking their chances with the unknown in preference to what’s in store for them in their home communities.

Cuba, even today, is no picnic. The government remains repressive, and personal freedoms trail those in the U.S. significantly.

But youngsters like Elian enjoy free universal education and health care. Compared to what Elian’s counterparts face in much of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, childhood in Cuba has a lot going for it.

And, of course, it’s entirely different trying to deal with tens of thousands of young emigrants compared to one 6-year-old boy.

But these are children seeking to survive.

In many cases, their parents have paid thousands of dollars to shady characters in the hope of somehow giving their kids a chance. They may never see them again.

Is it too much to provide them a few basics — food, clothing, shelter, some kind of home — while our authorities try to work out a solution for them?

In pre-Civil War days, Iowa had its share of stops on the Underground Railroad, helping Southern slaves escape to freedom.

Decades ago, Orphan Trains passed through our state full of children seeking to be adopted by local families. Some Greene County residents came here that way.

In the mid-1970s, through Gov. Bob Ray’s initiative, thousands of Tai Dam refugees from the Vietnam War were welcomed to Iowa, where they made a new life and enriched the state through their presence and hard work.

And I was never prouder of Jefferson than when dozens of our residents helped to welcome 22 members of the extended Gashi family, who were invited here to find sanctuary from Serb persecution in their native Kosovo in the 1990s.

They lived here for six months until they felt Kosovo was safe enough to return there.

On the other hand, in 1939, with Nazi brutality toward Jews running rampant in Germany, a shipload of more than 900 German Jews appeared off the U.S. Atlantic coast seeking asylum from Nazi horrors.

The ship, the SS St. Louis, was denied entrance to the United States, to our everlasting shame, despite a plea to President Roosevelt from the ship’s captain. The occupants were returned to European countries.

More than 250 of them eventually perished in Nazi death camps.

Children fleeing narcoterrorism in their home countries are as much refugees as those who flee communism.

Those Americans who want to provide sanctuary for them, even if only temporarily, should be allowed to do so.

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