Atlanta — The federal courts, miffed at the Justice Department's slow pace in dealing with jailed Cuban refugees, are ordering the release of large numbers of the more than 1,700 Cubans held here for over a year in a condemned maximum-security prison.
The release of as many as 300 Cubans, which could be ordered this week, is part of the unfinished chapter of a saga begun last year.
Last spring, when more than 125,000 Cubans jammed onto small boats and headed for Key West, the United States was slapped with one of the most blatant affronts to its immigration laws in recent history. The Cubans came with the blessing of Fidel Castro but without US permission.
Then-President Jimmy Carter, making the best of what he could not control, welcomed them to the land of freedom. But more than 1,700 got only a brief taste of freedom before being imprisoned.
US immigration officials, while seeing a sham made of the entry laws, tried to enforce at least one aspect of that law by locking up those who had committed a crime, any crime, in their country.
How did they know whom to detain? Some of the refugees' haircuts and clothes indicated they may have come straight from a prison, as indeed some did. But for the most part, officials simply asked the refugees if they had ever been in prison. Those honest enough to admit their records were locked up; others likely hid their past and went free.
About 5 percent of those locked up were convicted in Cuba of homicide; some 75 percent were property offenders.
US District Judge Marvin Shoob refuses to release refugees considered dangerous. But he chastised the government here in court this week for delays in releasing the nondangerous Cubans.
"The government is not going to do anything until the court forces it to do something," he said. "These aren't just numbers, these are people in jail, and they've been there 14 months."
Judge Shoob intends to go right down the list of all the detained Cubans to hear US arguments against their release.
Some 150 of those whom Judge Shoob is likely to release in his first order already had been cleared for release by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. But release was held up pending a report by a presidential task force on all immigration issues, including the detention of Cubans. Privately, some immigration officials were upset with that delay.
When that report was made recently, the Justice Department announced plans to review the status of all the detained Cubans. But that's too slow for Judge Shoob.
Earlier, a federal court of appeals in Denver ordered the release of Pedro Rodriguez Fernandez, who was finally released earlier this month. He called the Monitor from his new home in Kansas City, saying how glad he was to be free. His case adds precedent to arguments of those seeking the release of remaining Cubans.
The US Catholic Conference is ready to receive Cubans in halfway houses set up across the country, according to a conference official. But if the release of 300 is ordered now, it would take a month to accommodate them, the official said.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials explain they were following the law, that their task was complicated by language problems, the large numbers of refugees involved and -- privately, they add -- by lack of a clear signal from Washington on how to proceed.