Floridians Doubt US Government Has a Plan for New Haitian Influx

WHILE the Clinton administration is negotiating with third countries in which to begin processing Haitian refugees, local officials here are worried that the federal government will dump the refugees on them and then walk away.

Local officials say Washington does not have a workable plan on how to receive and relocate the refugees, and that responsibility is going to fall on locals once the refugees start arriving.

Miami City Manager Cesar Odio says the federal government recently proposed an emergency immigration plan, but the city rejected it. ``The plan that they proposed means we will absorb the costs,'' he says. ``I don't think they are prepared [for an influx].''

President Clinton's special envoy to Haiti, William Gray, said the United States will most likely begin interviewing Haitian refugees for political asylum this week aboard a chartered 700-bed Ukrainian cruise ship and a 1,000-bed US Navy hospital ship.

Mr. Gray said the administration has not received a formal response from Britain on using the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean for the hearings.

In theory, immigration is a federal responsibility. But in reality Miami officials find that Washington shunts the cost of keeping the new arrivals off onto local and state governments.

``The federal government is going to dump all the refugees here and tell us `tough luck,''' said Miller Dawkins, vice mayor of the City of Miami.

In 1980, the federal government admitted 125,000 Cubans and 7,200 Haitians into Florida during the Mariel boat lift when Cuban President Fidel Castro asked Cubans who wanted to leave the country to do so. Many of the refugees had family members here who could take them in; others did not. Local governments set up tent cities to house the destitute refugees.

Dade County and the State of Florida say they have accumulated $2.6 billion in refugee-related hospital and school expenses since 1980. In March, Gov. Lawton Chiles sued the federal government to recover some of the money.

One year after the Mariel boat lift, the White House ordered the Justice Department to develop a Mass Immigration Emergency Plan. Thirteen years later, the plan is still not ready.

When President Clinton ordered a boat load of 411 Haitians brought into the country in April, they came to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome Avenue Detention Center here. Florida's departments of health, corrections, law enforcement, and its division of emergency management were called upon to assist the refugees.

The Dade County Police Department says its part in this assistance program, including escorts and guards, costs $717,000 per day; Miami spends $250,000 daily.

The federal government's inability to handle 411 refugees, local officials say, shows it is not ready to cater to a large influx once interviews begin and flotillas take off from Haiti. Already, the number of refugees intercepted by the Coast Guard has been on the rise since Clinton announced the change in policy May 8. More than 1,200 refugees have been sent back since then.

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