Puerto Rico: 'political' way station for unsettled Cubans and Haitians?

Less than two weeks before the presidential election, Puerto Rico -- which has no electoral votes -- is about to become the main holding point for unsettled Haitian and Cuban refugees.

The refugee "burden," as local officials in Miami describe it, has become a political liability for President Carter in south Florida.

When the President held a "town meeting" here Oct. 21, he was peppered with complaints about the refugees. The President complimented Floridians for their cooperation and said the federal government would be picking up the entire tab for refugee expenses incurred by the state.

Carter's Florida campaign staff here said earlier in the campaign that the refugee issue was hurting them in south Florida.

James Gigante, Miami head of the federal Cuban-Haitian task force said the opening of a refugee center at the Ft. Allen naval base in Puerto Rico was occurring because Arkansas officials refuse to take more refugees and the other temporary camps are closed.

In fact, Camp McCoy, in Wisconsin, still has some refugees. When asked why the camps could not be re-activated as they were on short notice for the Cuban refugees last spring, Mr. Gigante said only that the choice of Puerto Rico "was made at the Washington level."

The choice of Puerto Rico as the main holding point for refugees "has all the earmarks" of a political decision, says Monseignor Bryan Walsh, director of Catholic Service Bureau here. Msgr. Walsh has been active in helping both Haitian and Cuban refugees.

In Washington, a spokesman for the Cuban-Haitian task force, Arthur Brill, said Puerto Rico was chosen for its warm climate, because the Ft. Allen site is an inactive military base, and because people there speak Spanish. The choice of Puerto Rico was made by the White House Sept. 23, said Mr. Brill.

Puerto Rico Gov. Carlos Romero Bercelo has objected to the sending of refugees to Puerto Rico. The objections were based on "environmental reasons," according to Brill. The governor obtained in federal court a temporary restraining order, which was lifted Oct. 22 by a three-judge federal appeals panel in Boston. Puerto Rico may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal officials say the camp in Puerto Rico will receive Haitians still unsettled in Florida as well as the new arrivals that continue to come to the US by boat.

New Cuban refugees not settled quickly would also be sent to Puerto Rico. And refugees whose parole (a legal immigration classification) is suspended would also be sent there, says Gigante.

Several hundred Cuban refugees have been staying in cheap hotels in South Miami Beach. Their first placement with sponsors or family did not work out.

But the tourist season is about to start. Some hotel owners insist the refugees must go to make room for their regular clients who come and stay the winter.

Miami Beach commissioners recently refused further payment of the hotel fees for the refugees. But federal reimbursement to Miami Beach was already on the way with more promised.

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