The GOP's False Consistency

"The Statue of Liberty says, 'Send me your poor, your sick, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'" sermonized John McCain, admonishing government officials to keep Elián González in United States rather than returning him to his father in Cuba.

When the Clinton Administration decided to return the boy, George W. Bush and Steve Forbes -- in high campaign gear -- accused Clinton of hobnobbing with Fidel Castro. "[The boy] is Bill Clinton's human sacrifice to Fidel Castro, and it's a disgrace," said Forbes. A House resolution to return Elián to his father garnered only five Republican votes. Even anti-immigrant Pat Buchanan has sided with the party line.

The Republicans seem to have selective memory when it comes to the Statue of Liberty's message, however. In 1996 for example, arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina proposed an amendment to the immigration bill giving states the right to deny public education to the children of illegal immigrants, essentially denying them citizenship rights. (Send me your huddled masses, but their kids can't go to school?) At the end of January, Helms helped introduce a bill into Congress that would present Elián with a certificate of naturalization from the Attorney General.

Similarly, Trent Lott stalled on a 1998 proposal restoring food stamps to legal immigrants -- which Congress denied them under the 1996 welfare reform act -- saying that the $818 million saved would be better spent on highways. But recently, he also co-sponsored the proposal granting little Elián his certificate of naturalization. (If he stays, can he eat?)

The Republican consensus is especially surprising because keeping Elián in the United States directly contradicts his father's plea to send him home to Cuba. With Republicans across the country piously stumping on family values, such a move is plain hypocrisy.

Take George W. Bush. In every education speech, he stresses that it is vital for parents to choose their children's schools; he also wants to give parents federal education funds to pay for tutoring or "anything that gives their children a fighting chance at learning." In one education speech, Bush used the word "parents" 26 times. But Bush thinks Elián's parent should not be able to raise him or even choose what country he lives in, let alone select his school.

Same with John McCain. As he gives impassioned speeches in favor of denying Elián's father custody, he righteously calls for school vouchers because parents -- not the government -- should be able to choose where their children go to school. Gary Bauer was head of the Family Research Council, an organization aimed at reaffirming and promoting "the traditional family unit." Now he says returning Elián to his father in Cuba would be "scandalous."

The reason that Elián has eclipsed traditional Republican positions on family values and immigration is because his case evokes atavistic Cold War sentiments from Republicans, according to James Gimpel, professor at the University of Maryland who studies immigration politics. While the American public has cast aside the fear of Cuba and prefers to return Elián to his father, Republicans are still swinging at communist hobgoblins. (A Time/CNN poll showed that 48 percent of Americans side with the Democrats, preferring that Elián be returned, while 35 percent think that he should stay in the U.S.)

"Republicans don't see this as an issue of family law because of their icy stance towards Cuba," he said. "They're still the party of saber-rattlers." At least they're consistent on one thing.