Immigrate Expectations

Exile leaders raised millions to bankroll their plan to refugees to South Florida from Guantanamo -- but money isn't the only stumbling block

Since this past summer's Cuban exodus, Miami's exile leaders have been biding their time, waiting for the right moment to exert their influence in delivering the nearly 30,000 refugees from the limbo of Guantanamo Naval Base and the safe-haven camps in Panama. Obviously, no massive immigration effort would be announced before the November elections. But during the past two months, members of the Ad Hoc Committee Family Reunification Program (a coalition of local community groups that includes the Cuban American National Foundation, the Latin Chamber of Commerce, the Latin Builders Association, Junta Patri centstica, the Kiwanis of Little Havana, and Municipios de Cuba en el Exilio) have been quietly working in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee, formulating a plan that would bring up to 20,000 rafters into the U.S. -- and most of them to Florida -- within the next six to eight months.

"Since the very beginning of the crisis in August, we recognized that sending people to Guantanamo and Panama would prove not to be a workable solution," an optimistic Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), told New Times last Wednesday. "So we came up with what we consider to be a solution to the problem."

A good part of that "solution," which could entail as much as $30 million in private funding, involves addressing this nation's anti-immigrant sentiment. In negotiations with the federal government, the Ad Hoc Committee has pledged that any Cuban refugee admitted to the U.S. will not become a burden on local taxpayers. According to Hernandez, 12,500 "sponsors," many of whom have family members currently interned in Guantanamo or Panama, have signed up to provide housing and financial support for a particular refugee or family of refugees. "These [refugees] will not access welfare or apply for food stamps," says Hernandez, adding that the committee has already printed up special stickers to be placed on incoming immigrants' ID cards, indicating that the bearer should not be given public assistance and listing CANF's phone number. "If they try to apply for food stamps, we'll be called and we'll go down and explain that they shouldn't apply and that we will take care of them," he says.

The committee also has plans for the nearly 2000 children living at Guantanamo. According to Hernandez, all schoolchildren admitted to the U.S. will attend private institutions and won't burden the public-school system at all. "We have already obtained 940 places in various schools and are working on finding the rest," he says.

The plan is similar to CANF's Exodus Program, which since 1988 has brought nearly 10,000 Cuban refugees into the United States when they've become stranded in countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas. As with that program, Hernandez stresses, admission to the U.S. is entirely at the discretion of Attorney General Janet Reno and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "This program does not guarantee that all will come in, only those who are admitted by the INS," Hernandez says. "What we have pledged is that we will take care of all that you admit."

Potential sponsors were screened to ensure that they could afford to participate; in order to be accepted, applicants had to submit a current tax return that showed a family income of at least $30,000. The sponsors were also made aware that besides providing food, clothing, and shelter for a refugee or family, they would also be expected to make a financial commitment to cover overall costs, such as schooling and health insurance. (Hernandez says the committee will raise the funds to provide a year's worth of health insurance for each arriving immigrant, and that negotiations are under way with several insurance carriers, so as to "get the best coverage for the least amount possible.") Hernandez estimates that each sponsor may be asked to pledge a $500 payment, which, at 12,500 sponsors, adds up to $7.5 million to work with. In addition, the CANF president says, between three and four million dollars in in-kind and other private contributions have already been raised.

The project's bottom line would depend on how many refugees are admitted to the United States -- a number the INS, not the committee, will ultimately determine -- but Hernandez is hoping for 16,000 to 20,000, which he calculates will cost $30 million. He predicts that by next month, 500 to 600 refugees per week will be flown from Guantanamo to South Florida.

While Hernandez was in Tallahassee last week briefing Gov. Lawton Chiles about the committee's efforts, Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, whom the CANF president credits as having been instrumental in drafting the proposal, was drumming up support in Washington, D.C.

Joe Pena, special assistant to the governor, says Chiles listened "politely" to Hernandez's prediction that as many as 20,000 refugees would be brought into the U.S. -- with perhaps 70 percent settling in South Florida -- in the next eight months, but made no commitment to support such an initiative. The governor's position, Pena adds, is that before any refugee is allowed in from Guantanamo or Panama, the federal government should assume all financial burdens associated with that person. "This is a federal responsibility, a national problem," Pena says.

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