US response to Cuban tide 'impressive' in retrospect

Chapter 1 is ending: the treacherous sea crossings from Cuba and day-after-day arrivals at the dock in Key West, Fla. Now begins Chapter 2: resetting and assimilating most, if not all, of the newest refugee group in the United States.

A critical look back reveals snags and mistakes, but already it is apparent that the American response to a crisis thrust upon it by Fidel Castro's government has been impressive.

* More than 107,000 people made the 15-hour crossing from Cuba to Key West in dangerously overloaded boats. The US Coast Guard, using 14 cutters and 25 aircraft and aided by three US Navy ships, patrolled the Florida Straits, rescuing and towing stragglers. Only 26 refugees are known to have been lost at sea -- a loss rate that Rear Adm. John D. Costello says is small even in normal boating situations.

* More than two dozen government agencies and private charity groups cooperated in a crash program of receiving the homeless and penniless arrivals; feeding, housing, clothing them; interviewing and processing them. The cooperation among agencies, from Central Intelligence to Health and Human Services, many of which had never worked together, was unprecedented, say federal emergencey officials.

* There were few major conflicts despite mounting pressures. For 10 days in a row, 3,500 to 5,000 refugees arrived, taxing the emergency personnel.

"One day it would be all families, the next day it would be all unattached males," says William Combs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "It was like a 'dirty tricks' campaign. Castro apparently was doing everything he could to upset us."

* Already, almost 50 percent of the refugees have been united with family members in this country. Half of those remaining in the four hastily established centers -- at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Ft. Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvanis, Ft. Chaffee in Arkansas, and Camp McCoy in Wisconsin -- have completed the screening process and are awaiting sponsors. They were being released to sponsors at a rate of 500 a day this week.

* For the most part, there was a delicate balance of efficient management and humanitarianism. No boats loaded with Cubans were turned back on the high seas. Social problems that came up earlier in the process have not recurred.

"Many things have been accomplished" in the 4-day crisis, US refugee coordinator Victor H. Palmieri Jr. told a House investigating subcommittee June 4. He said the US policy "has centered on a humanitarian effort, enforcement of our laws, and winning the support of the Cuban-American community. . . . It was a first-class domestic and international crisis. I think the job done in this short amount of time has been heroic and responsibly discharged. It has been a spectacular effort."

Most logistical operations were accomplished without problems. The nation's airlines, for instance, ferried the Cubans to refugee centers away from Florida and then set up emegency ticket offices in the camps. Each day as many as 1,500 Cubans who had been cleared for resettlement were flown to various parts of the country. The great number of Cuban-American relatives who congregated at the camps had to be handled through emergency receiving and reunification facilities. At Ft. Indiantown Gap, 4,500 visitors were waiting this week to see their relatives.

The Defense Department, meanhwile, had to walk a tightrop at camps such as Ft. Chaffee to make sure no statutes barring the military from enforcing civilian laws were violated.

Ahead are the difficult tasks of excluding the aliens who have committed major crimes in Cuba or have incited disturbances since arriving; finding sponsors for those remaining in camps; and forestalling any sort of "back-lash" that could occur because of the presence of such a large group of new job seekers in the US.

"Each of the problems so far has taken us a week to 10 days to solve," says Mr. Combs of FEMA. "And each time a problem is solved, you send the people along the system, and you have another problem. Untangling the processing and clearnce is what we're concentrating on now. But in a week to 10 days, you'll be reading stories about how the voluntary agencies are having trouble doing their job."

According to charity officias, the Indochinese refugees who arrived after the fall of Saigon stayed in US camps an average of 100 days. Mr. Combs says there are signs that processing-out the Cubans will be much faster. And so far charity groups are confident that sponsors can be arranged, although they have expressed a need for financial assistance.

Federal officials have estimated the cost of the operation at $300 million. Members of Congress this week urged the White House to aid state and local government engaged in resettlement efforts. This could add up to another $200 million. The total cost would be higher if charity groups and relatives of the refugees were not involved.

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