Who shoulders the refugee burden?
Miami — Picture yourself in Rose Ceda's shoes. You're in a strange country, can't speak the language, and countless employment searches through this steamy city have netted you not a single job in a year and a half. Living in a $400-a-month, three-bedroom house with four other families, your only source of income is a monthly federal aid check of $119. But that aid didn't arrive in the mail June 1 because it has been cut -- for you, as well as for your other roommates.
Take a giant leap and imagine yourself in a different pair of shoes -- Florida Gov. Robert Graham's. Large numbers of Cubans and Haitians from the boatlifts of 1980 have settled in your state, bringing with them problems of poverty, unemployment, and crime. The federal government has just cut its cash assistance to most of these 38,000 ''entrants.'' Your compassionate profile stands to take a political beating: If you refuse to bail out the refugees with some sort of aid, you're likely to have a severe public health and safety problem on your hands. If you do bail them out, you'll have to face a severe financial burden.
The predicaments of Rose Ceda and Governor Graham center on this month's cutoff of federal assistance funds established by the Carter administration for the 125,000 Cubans and 25,000 Haitians arriving in the 1980 boatlift.
The Reagan administration cut the eligibility time from 36 months to 18 months for ''entrants,'' a special immigration status given to boatlift refugees (different from refugee or resident status). Of the 150,000 entrants who entered the country through Florida in 1980, roughly 38,000 remain on aid in that state. Most of them have already been in the country 18 months or more, according to the state Health and Rehabilitative Service.
Hundreds of Cubans and Haitians who received their last checks May 1 lined up at each of four Dade county assistance offices June 7 to receive a one-time $100 payment and a $20 bag of groceries as part of an emergency assistance program pieced together by the state with $5 million in federal impact aid. But how the entrants will make ends meet is unclear.
While $119 may seem like a small amount of money, it has been the sole source of income for many like Miss Ceda. By pooling her check with those of her many roommates, Miss Ceda tells a visitor, they were able to afford the $400 rent, just enough food to get by, and little else. The last assistance came in May, and was gone by mid-month, she says, adding that this may mean the difference between having a roof over her head and sleeping in a park.
Although large numbers of refugees carry on their individual struggles silently and unseen in the poorer quarters of this metropolitan area, Florida authorities anticipate that existing health, crime and unemployment problems will become much more visible in the community with the cash cuts.
''There are several things that are certainly going to happen,'' Governor Graham says. ''The cost of refugees to local communities will escalate. As an example, the largest hospital in Florida is Jackson Memorial in Miami. . . . Almost one in five babies born there are born to mothers of the entrant population. They will become an unpaid bill to be picked up by the local community.
''All the ingredients for increased crime are certainly in place as you have this many people who are destitute and desperate, . . .'' he continued. ''It's the equivalent of adding 4 to 5 percent to your unemployment rate overnight.
He adds the US will also see ''the beginnings of a movement of people from Florida to one of the other states in which they will be able to continue to get benefits.''
The governor has suggested that refugees go to one of six states where the federal aid will continue on a 36-month eligibility basis. He is suing the federal government over this policy, which continues to provide federal assistance for entrants for 36 months in states that have general welfare funds, while allowing assistance only up to 18 months in states like Florida which have no general welfare program.
A single problem that has troubled all of the refugee programs -- but perhaps has been most hotly debated in this state, where 75 percent of the 1980 entrants settled -- is deciding who is responsible for supporting the refugees, who are largely unskilled and uneducated and thus largely unemployed.
Although there has been some success in the federal interception program, in which US Coast Guard patrols keep boatloads of Haitians from entering the country, Graham blames the federal government for the refugee problems Florida has been saddled with. It is a federal agency -- the Immigration and Naturalization Service - that decides when and if a person can stay in the United States, and Graham says it stands to reason that the federal government should provide for these people.
How can Florida, which has spent $150 million on refugee programs since 1980, be financially responsible for an immigration program it can't control, he asks.
Meanwhile, social workers on the streets in Miami say that the cutoff has been followed by an increase in refugee evictions in recent weeks. Staff members of the Haitian American Community Association of Dade (HACAD) report evicted finding Haitians sleeping in cars and on park benches. A Cuban assistance program director notes that makeshift tents have blossomed under freeway ramps and bridges as well as on abandoned boats where Cubans are taking shelter. As fast as officials can dismantle the the crude abodes, she says, they reappear.
Linda Berkowitz, operations and management consultant for refugee programs for Florida's Health and Rehabilitative Services, says many of the entrants will qualify for food stamps. But, she adds, that aside from a $5 million advance on a requested $34 million in federal impact aid, there will be no cash assistance for entrants. She suggests that before masses of refugees spill out into the streets, there will be larger numbers sharing houses and apartments where many already sleep in shifts, bunk on dining room tables or sleep five in a bed.