If the proud Statue of Liberty, the global symbol of a free and charitable America, had human traits, she might hang her head, a little shamed and a little puzzled.
One does not have to stand long on the docks at Key West, Fla., where the ragtag Cuban boatlift puts in, to realize that U.S. refugee policy is in disarray.
In two weeks, more than 8,700 Cubans have made the treacherous crossing to Key West. No one has any idea how many more will show up seeking asylum, but it could be in the tens of thousands.
It is a powerful demonstration of troubles in Fidel Castro's socialistic paradise, far more powerful than any of the broadcasts the Voice of America beams toward Cuban listeners.
But instead of turning this show of Cuban sentiment to political advantage, the Carter administration -- for lack of policy or uncertainty about it -- has left bad vibrations all over South Florida.
The dangerous boatlift continues. State and local government, already overburdened, are left to handle the brunt of the expense. Heroic volunteers, mostly Cuban Americans and exiles, are all that make the refugees feel secure on landing.
Immigration and Customs officials, many speaking no more than pidgin Spanish, huffily process the new arrivals. Public figures such as FBI Director William Webster and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), mutter about "criminal" elements Castro is slipping into the boats, which seems to miss the point.
Belatedly, Gov. Bob Graham this week activated the National Guard to help in Dade and Monroe counties, in which he declared a state of emergency, and promised state aid in processing refugees.
But Washington, mostly through Victor H. Palmieri, the State Department's coordinator for refugee affairs, talks about steps it is considering to ease the problem. Little action, much talk.
The situation led the Miami Herald to editorialize bluntly this week that Washington's inaction is "obscenely callous toward the real human suffering that's taking place in Miami and the Keys."
It took no special insight to realize several basic facts, once Castro allowed exiles to travel to Cuba to pick up friends and relatives. For one, despite warnings from the Coast Guard, navigators in hundreds of tiny, unseaworthy craft chugged into the Florida Straits. They were going, regardless, and they still are.
For another, despite warnings from Washington, commercial fishing boat operators joined in the parade -- often collecting high fares -- to bring refugees back. Many of them had relatives they wanted to claim in Cuba.
Yet rather than provide U.S. Coast Guard and Navy protection and guidance for the boatlifters, official Washington took the position they were on their own. When a violent storm Sunday capsized at least 14 boats and took four lives, Coast Guardsmen were required to risk their lives on rescue missions.
After the dimensions of the tragedy began sinking in, three days later, President Carter diverted naval vessels from a planned military exercise off Cuba to help the boatmen. Coast Guard cutters were ordered into guidance positions in the straits.
Rather than concentrate on getting refugees onto U.S. shores as expeditiously as possible, in a safe and orderly way, Customs seized three passenger-carrying shrimp boats and instantly increased the prospect of clandestine and illegal landings.
Customs provided little help in explaining why its agents picked on only three of the dozens of boats that brought passengers. Officers in Key West referred inquiries to Miami; Customs in Miami referred them back to Key West.
The White House waited until after the storm Sunday to trot out Vice President Mondale to put the onus on Castro for the safety of the refugee boatmen.
Obviously, it is Castro's responsibility. To avert more tragedy and human suffering, all that is needed is to put out the word that safer large boats and airplanes will be permitted to land in Cuba to ferry out the refugees. Plenty will show up.
But Castro has not done so and the United States, for its part, once again is in the posture of reacting defensively to the twists and turns of Castro's rhetoric.
For all those gyrations, Castro cannot alter the meaning of the exodus. His propaganda machine calls the refugees "worms" and "parasites" and "antisocial elements."
Interviews with many of this bedraggled lot reveal a simple picture. They are not revolutionaries or criminals -- Holtzman's findings notwithstanding. Many are young enough to have known no other chief of state than Castro, yet they want out.
They are human beings who worry about feeding their children, who don't want Big Brother thinking for them, who don't want neighbors spying on them, who want to eat, sleep, work and breathe as reasonably free people.
Through it all, they retain a sense of humor. One refugee joked that Castro would have hidden in the Peruvian Embassy if some 10,000 Cubans had not taken all the space first. An exiled boatman quipped over his marine radio that he was on his way to pick up "El Caballo" (the horse) -- meaning Fidel.
Washington bureaucrats talk of recession and job problems, criminal problems and refugee quota numbers as reasons for somehow stopping the boatlift, but they're talking to a wall.
The word is still out that the Statue of Liberty stands proud and that the United States has a warm place in its heart for refugees. Unless Castro closes the gates, the Cubans will keep leaving and they will keep coming here in droves.
Washington ought to understand that reality and quickly turn it into a plus. This is still a very large country.