September 14, 2023 - 9:01 pm
“Worse than Jimmy Carter” is an epithet Republicans often throw at Democratic presidents. It’s a label, though, that Joe Biden clearly deserves on immigration, an area where — along with inflation and the Afghan debacle — there are echoes of the Carter years.
Back in 1980, an overwhelmed Carter administration struggled to cope with the Mariel boatlift, a rapid surge of Cubans into South Florida, just as the hapless Biden White House is watching the current migrant crisis strain communities around the country. A promising young Democratic governor, Bill Clinton, ended up collateral damage when boatlift migrants housed at a fort in Arkansas rioted. Clinton’s predicament brings to mind the agony of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and other Democrats paying the price for a failed border policy outside their direct control.
Of course, the two crises, separated by more than 40 years, aren’t the same. The scale of the influx today, running into the millions, is much larger than the boatlift of about 125,000 people; the 1980 crisis largely involved just one city, Miami; and no foreign leader is manipulating the situation with the blatant cynicism of Fidel Castro. No, rather than a communist dictator flooding the United States with migrants out of spite, it is Joe Biden doing it to himself and his country with his incompetence and willful negligence at the border.
That’s not to say that Carter wasn’t indecisive and ineffectual. Embarrassed by thousands of Cubans who crowded the Peruvian embassy seeking asylum, Castro said that anyone could leave the port of Mariel as long as someone came to pick them up, catalyzing a mad dash of Cubans from Miami in boats who wanted to pick up their compatriots. Carter equivocated. One day, he said the flow would be cut off; the next day, he said that “ours is a country of refugees.”
The day after those remarks, 4,500 Cubans arrived, more in a day than the total Carter had talked about taking in at the outset. Castro didn’t literally empty out the jails, as his often said, but he did mix prisoners and mental patients among the migrants. Nicholas Griffin, author of the book about Miami in 1980, “The Year of Dangerous Days,” estimates that no more than 4 percent of the Cubans who arrived were criminals. Still, that created an unjustly negative impression of all the so-called Marielitos.
Regardless, tens of thousands of people showing up with nothing is going to be a burden at any time and any place. Miami begged for federal aid and used the Orange Bowl for temporary shelter. Cubans in the community were genuinely openhanded and intent on helping the newcomers; Martha’s Vineyard, this was not.
But the governor at the time, Democrat Bob Graham, sounded a lot like today’s Democrats in areas struggling to cope with the mass arrival of migrants. Graham warned of the threat migrants “pose in terms of jobs, pressure on schools and welfare support. We are in a period where national sympathy for refugees is at a low point.”
The boatlift wasn’t Carter’s biggest problem, but it added to the sense of things being out of control. In the fall of 1980, Castro ended the boatlift. In 2023, there’s no indication that the man most responsible for today’s crisis, a president beholden to his party’s left, wants to stop the ongoing debacle at the border.
Rich Lowry is on X @RichLowry.