Destination America
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Cuban refugees at sea

Balseros at Sea
Cuban refugees used an amazing variety of vessels in their attempts to reach Florida — in this case, in 2003, a boat with a propeller hooked up to the drive shaft of a 1951 Chevrolet truck. According to a study by the University of Florida, as many as 16,000 Cubans may have perished in the water between Cuba and Florida from 1959 through 1994.

To many people considered troublemakers and radicals in their homelands America offered the opportunity to make a new life in a land that valued liberty.
Destination America

Watch the VideoA Political Choice

In 1649, after years of civil war, England became a commonwealth and King Charles I lost his head to an executioner's ax. Eleven years later, Charles I's son was restored to the throne. Three of the judges who had condemned the new king's father to death—William Goffe, Edward Whalley, and John Dixwell—promptly set sail for Boston. Despite Charles II's furious demands for their return, the three regicides managed to evade capture with the connivance of Puritan clergymen, and they lived out their lives in New England.

Although there was a religious twist to the episode—the Commonwealth leaders were Puritans—Goffe, Whalley, and Dixwell can been seen as the first of thousands of political dissidents to seek refuge in America.

The United States' reputation as a haven for dissidents derives directly from the Constitution, which guaranteed the nation's citizens a representative government, due process of law, and the protection of fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly. Such guarantees were practically unprecedented in the 18th century; they still elude many of the world's people today.

A Conditional Haven

To many people considered troublemakers and radicals in their homelands, like the liberals fleeing the failed European revolutions of 1848, America offered the opportunity to make a new life in a land that valued liberty. To others, like Cuban revolutionary JosÚ MartÝ, the United States provided a temporary refuge while they worked to free their homelands from colonial rule or tyrannical governments.

America's welcome to dissidents, however, has not been universally warm. During the French Revolution, there were worries that immigrants would try to overthrow the new republic—worries that led to the restrictive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In the late 19th century, many native-born Americans feared that immigrants would bring with them "un-American" ideologies like anarchism and communism. These fears led to a "Red Scare" after World War I that resulted in the forced deportation of several hundred immigrants. A quarter of a century later, the onset of the Cold War fostered another Red Scare, with similar suspicions.

Oppression vs. Fear

Freedom from oppression differs from freedom from fear, in that not all the groups profiled here came to the United States in desperate fear of their lives—although some of them, like those who arrived from, say, Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s certainly did. In many instances, these immigrants might have remained in their native countries, leading unmolested lives—so long as they were willing to acquiesce to unjust, unrepresentative, and tyrannical governments, or to accept foreign domination of their homelands. But they were not content to do so. Often these newcomers—like the British radicals and German "Forty-Eighters" who arrived in the first half of the 19th century—tried to reform the political systems of their own countries, before giving it up as a bad job and embarking for a country where they believed that an individual's voice had some protection and significance. They followed a tradition that predated even American independence: as Thomas Jefferson put it in his Summary View of the Rights of British North America, those willing to make the journey to America "[possess] a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country which chance, not choice, has placed them."

Source: Destination America by Charles A. Wills, Bibliography

Sources: Bolseroes-Getty Images, Christopher Columbus-The Granger Collection, Book & Series: Destination America

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