A boat of Cuban refugees arriving in Kew West, Florida in April 1980.

POLITICS: Joe Biden’s border bungling echoes Jimmy Carter

“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 political agony of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and other Democratic officeholders now 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.

A boat of Cuban refugees arriving in Key West, Florida, in April 1980.
Photo by Tim Chapman/Miami Herald

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 Jimmy Carter wasn’t indecisive and ineffectual.

Embarrassed by thousands of Cubans who crowded the Peruvian embassy, 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, “Ours is a country of refugees.”

A boat of refugees sent by Fidel Castro from the port of Mariel, Cuba.
A boat of refugees sent by Fidel Castro from the port of Mariel, Cuba, in May 1980.
Photo by ARCHIVO/AFP via Getty Images

The day after those remarks, 4,500 Cubans arrived, more in a single day than the total Carter had talked about taking in at the outset. 

Castro didn’t literally empty out the jails, as is 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% of the Cubans who arrived were criminals.

Still, that created an unjustly negative impression of all the so-called Marielitos.

Cubans applying for asylum status after arriving in Florida during the boatlift.
Cubans applying for asylum status after arriving in Florida during the boatlift.
Bettmann Archive

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.”

A group of migrants waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol officers  at the border in Arizona on August 25, 2023.
A group of migrants waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Patrol officers at the border in Arizona on August 25, 2023.
Daniel William McKnight

Just as we’ve heard in places like Chicago during the current crisis, African Americans in Miami complained about so much focus and energy getting devoted to people who had just arrived.

“The feeling is that the black community was waiting in line and now our time had come,” an influential black lawyer said. “Only it hasn’t.”

The boatlift wasn’t Jimmy Carter’s biggest political problem, but it added to the sense of things being out of control.

“It’s a mess,” Carter said at one point, “but we’re doing the best we can.”

To his credit, he did not add — as his successor 40 years later might — “and now I’m going to bed.”

In fall 1980, Castro ended the boatlift. 

In 2023, there’s no indication the man most responsible for today’s crisis, a president of the United States beholden to his party’s left, wants to stop the ongoing debacle at the border

Twitter: @RichLowry

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