US red tape leads impatient Cubans to take matters into their own hands

Frustrations are mounting among Cuban refugees in the crowded, temporary camps in the United States, where they are being detained until their processing is complete.

Rock-throwing, fights, and escapes from two of the camps -- Ft. Chaffee, Ark. , and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. -- over the Memorial Day weekend reflect the depth of that frustration and the slowness of the processing. (All but a few of the escaped refugees had been returned to the camps at this writing.)

During a visit to the Eglin camp before the disturbances, this reporter found growing tenseness and anger among some of the Cubans. They could not understand why they were being held so long (at the time, 10 days).

No Cuban among the dozens interviewed on that visit was aware of what federal officials were already admitting -- that it will be "months" before the camps are emptied. Most refugees said they were hoping to be released "tomorrow."

Relatives contacting or visiting the refugees also find it confusing that the latter are not released at once.

Part of the blame, at least at Eglin, lies with federal officials -- as one of them admits. This official first told reporters ("and word undoubtedly got back to the refugees") that the Cubans would be processed within 48 hours of their arrival at the camp. He later explained that he meant it would take 48 hours for security clearances to be processed from Washington.

But after the security checks, two other clearances are required of each refugee: health and proof of a local contact -- either family or friends, or a sponsor.

Federal officials told this newspaper that sponsorships will be the bottleneck for those without family or friends in the US. But only about 15 percent of the refugees lacked both family and friends, by one estimate.

Volunteer agencies looking for sponsorships are running into delays because they lack staff to do the paper work. Church groups and the Cuban community nationally are pitching in by offering to take refugees.

Still, more than any other problem, the number of refugees is overwhelming the process. By May 27, the total had passed 80,000.

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