Officials begin to focus on remaining unsponsored Cuban refugees
Atlanta — Efforts are under way to help the estimated 5 percent of the Cuban refugees who remain without homes, sponsors, or jobs. Last year, when some 125,000 Cuban refugees poured into Key West, Fla., by boat, there were cheers and smiles all around. Families were reunited. Those without relatives in the United States looked forward to getting a fresh start.
Often the first taste of freedom was an apple, something many had not eaten in years. Visions of paychecks, homes, and cars filled their thoughts.
Today, an estimated 116,000 have found their foothold with relatives or a sponsor. Many are employed.
What of the others?
* Nearly 6,000 remain at Fort Chaffee, Ark., still in need of sponsors. About 30 to 40 a day are being settled. But for the rest, the long wait continues.
* Some 1,700 are prisoners, about half of them here in Atlanta's federal penitentiary. Most admitted past offenses to US Immigration and Naturalization (INS) officials when they arrived. Some have committed serious crimes. But critics say many others are not guilty of a serious offense and should be released. They are in a legal limbo -- unwanted here, unwanted by Cuba. Their future may depend on the impact of a recent US District Court decision in Kansas that a Cuban prisoner cannot be held indefinitely.
* A third group comprises those said to be wandering in the Miami area. Once they had sponsors, but something did not work out. Now they are on their own.
(A tricle of Cubans is still coming. Twentyseven arrived on seven boats between Oct. 10 and Dec. 29, says a spokesman for the Immigration and Nauralization Service.)
Most of the refugees still at Fort Chaffee are males. Their placement with sponsors has been hampered by the publicity on riots among some of the refugees there last year, says a spokeswoman at the camp.
But the rioters have been detained elsewhere. Many of the remaining refugees volunteer to do chores around the camp, and are "lovely" people, says Kitty Beck , a State Department official there.
Persons interested in sponsoring a refugee -- providing a place to live temporarily until they can make it on their own -- can call a toll free number at Fort Chaffee: 1-800-643-2575.
In a recent article in the Miami Herald, Carol Whitlock of Red Wing, Minn., described how she and her husband sponsored a Cuban. It was tiring and took time to help him find work and a place to live, she wrote, but "it's one of the nicest kinds of tired I've known."
Regarding the Cubans being held in prison, INS spokesman Verne Jervis said he did not yet have a breakdown of the kinds of crimes.
Of 1,112 INS hearings to decide on their admission to the US, only 35 imprisoned refugees have been admitted, he says.
But, says an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Atlanta, "they have not all committed felonies." Even many who did, the attorney said, stole clothing or food because they were poor. "A vast number of the people in there don't need to be incarcerated," the attorney added.
Sometimes cultural or language problems have arisen in determining admissability, critics say. For example, according to the Legal Aid attorney, some are held for "rape" while in fact they were imprisoned in Cuba for nonviolent premarital sex without subsequent marriage to the woman.
Serious offenders should be held, says Juan del Aguila, a Cuban-American political science professor at Emory University, who has assisted in some of the INS hearings here. But others should be released, he says. Many completed sentences in Cuba, he adds.
He criticizes INS application of the law on admissable circumstances as "unfair and probably unjust."
In Miami, where most of the Cubans have settled, refugee affairs administrator Silvia Unzueta disputes some press reports quoting unnamed Miami officials that some 2,000 refugees are living on the streets and in parks. The number is far less, she estimates.
The INS recently sent some 70 apparently homeless Cuban refugees from Miami to detention in El Centro, Calif., pending placement with other sponsors.
Of some 1,051 prisoners in the Dade County jail, only 103 are from last year's boatlift, she says. Press reports have attributed much of the current crime rate to Cuban refugees.
The first federal cash assistance to the refugees will finally become available -- about $100 a month -- in January, says administrator Unzueta. Also badly needed, she says, are more jobs and places for the refugees to live on their own.