Our second floor balcony overlooked the sand and sea. We were staying on Grand Cayman – modestly many miles east of George Town, the cruise ships and diamond-studded Seven Mile Beach.
Nevertheless, watching resort employees meticulously arrange the lounge chairs and rake the sand every morning left me discomfited. I am not at-ease with service. I would rather arrange my own chair. As for the sand, I like the metaphor of footprints in the sand and the transitory nature of our life on earth. Sweeping the sand? As though we can erase our path… as though we can avoid being washed away by the tide that waits for no man.
Moral ambiguity as always intrigued me. And luckily for me, opportunity came my way early one morning in the Caymans.
Dawn was just breaking, but a ruckus on the beach drew me to the balcony. Looking down on the pier, I saw boat people sardined in a small approximation of a child’s pirate ship. The boat was 20/25 feet in length. It was relatively broad of beam with five or so feet of freeboard. Despite it’s size, the boat looked sturdy and seaworthy. Small for the number of people aboard, but I could imagine it bobbing merrily along like a cork on the high seas. No one debarked. Several resort employees stood at the end of the pier talking to the men in the boat. By 6:00 a.m. the day was already hot. The heat from the previous day clung like shrink-wrap. I could see no sun shelter on the boat.
As the day dawned, I learned the particulars: 24 Cubans (22 men and two women) had left Cuba five days earlier. The boat’s occupants were well-spoken and skilled craftsman – who had, in fact, built the boat themselves. On closer look, a bamboo raft with inner-tube flotation devices lay across the boat’s gunwale. A life raft of sorts.
The Cubans were on their way to Honduras some 500-plus miles to the west. They did have a GPS, but they were out of fuel, out of water, and someone had an allergy. Did anyone have Benadryl? I didn’t have Benadryl, but I did have Ibuprofen. Someone was bound to have a headache. For the life of me, I cannot imagine risking my life to reach Honduras… especially if my ultimate destination (like theirs) was Miami. Honduras was not the end; Honduras was closer to the beginning.
(I apologize for the poor quality of the photos. I kept my distance. Coming closer to the boat-people felt a bit voyeuristic to me… why would I want to take advantage of someone else’s misery?)
The Rules of Engagement with illegal immigrants coming to (or stopping in) The Caymans are clear: If an immigrant lands, he is sent to detention and deported to his home country. If a boat is deemed un-seaworthy, the occupants are sent to detention and deported. For those who live on the island, it is illegal to aid and abet immigrants coming by sea. And there you have it; the moral dilemma. The choices are clear; you can obey the law or break it.
Based on my observation, there is some flexibility as to how the law is interpreted.
What I saw was that someone from the resort invited the constable and immigration officers to join him for coffee. And as soon as the immigration officers turned their backs, water, fuel, food, medicine, and sun shade tarps were whisked aboard the boat. As one resort employee told me, it costs the local economy $10,000 dollars to send a boat-person to detention and then home. Aside from any humanitarian reasons, it makes sense (as well as cents) to see that boat-people have the means of leaving.
In July of 2010, the government granted a one-month amnesty. Those illegal aliens who had not left the island by August first, were in danger of incurring a $16,000 U.S. dollar fine and five year imprisonment. As for Caymanians hiring illegal aliens, they would also face consequences.
We in the United States have our own immigration issues, and no solution seems to be in the offing. That said, you can bet there is a good deal of winking and nodding going on… Meanwhile, many immigrants believe that illegal entry is worth the risk. Annual estimates vary – the number of illegal entries ranges between 300,000 and over a million. If you are unfamiliar with the risks, you might enjoy two award-winning immigration movies.
The first is El Norte (1983) by Gregory Nava. In this movie, a brother and sister travel north after the Guatemalan army destroys their family and Mayan Indian village. My second recommendation is Sin Nombre (2009) by Cary Joji Fukunaga. In this movie, a Honduran girl and a boy (trying to escape his gang affiliation) try to emigrate to the United States. You can stream both movies on Netflix. Otherwise, order copies from inter-library loan.