ATLANTA Florida officials last Friday welcomed President Clinton's statement of resolve to bar refugees fleeing Cuba. but they also expressed concerns about the financial burdens caused by those who have already arrived.
"President Clinton's announcement represents a balance to best protect the people of Florida, and to prevent unnecessary risks being taken by those seeking to flee the Communist regime in Cuba." Gov. Lawton Chiles said in a statement,
But "I will continue to press the federal government to take full responsibility for all costs associated with providing services to refugees and to reimburse Florida state and local officials for costs expended in providing services to the refugees," Chiles said.
Chiles recently asked the federal government to declare a state of emergency in Florida because of the Cuban refugee situation and to give the state $75 million to cover the cost of immigration.
Chiles' comments followed Clinton's announcement at a Friday afternoon press conference that the U.S. government would henceforth intercept immigrants defecting from Cuba and send them to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo.
The president said he will then "explore the possibility of other safe havens in the region" for the immigrants.
The announcement signaled a stark about-face in American foreign policy, under which nearly all Cubans fleeing the Communist state since 1966 were granted refuge.
Clinton acted after a dramatic increase last week in the flow of refugees brought more than 1,500 Cubans to Florida. The exodus, which swelled the number of new Cuban immigrants in Florida to about 2,000 this year, followed statements from Cuban President Fidel Castro last week that he would no longer prevent people from leaving his country.
The outflows are the heaviest since more than 125,000 Cubans entered the United States over a five-month period in 1980 as part of the so-called Mariel boatlift.
Earlier Friday, Chiles ordered Florida law enforcement officials to set up a blockade to prevent refugees from leaving facilities set up by the Coast Guard and other federal agencies. The governor said he took the step so the Cubans could be "properly detained and screened for health and public safety purposes."
Like Chiles, local officials in Florida breathed a sigh of relief Friday over Clinton's decision to stem the influx of new refugees. They also continued to insist that the federal government must shoulder 'some of the costs of those new immigrants who have already arrived.
"Dade County will continue to respond to the immediate situation, but the larger question is whether we have the long-term resources to deal with overall influx ," said Edward Marquez, the county's director of finance. "The answer is, we don't -- and that's where the federal government must take responsibility."
Marquez said the county strongly supports a lawsuit filed by Gov. Chiles earlier this year to force the federal government to help share the costs of Florida's immigrant population.
The county faces the immediate cost of feeding, clothing, and housing, and the long-term costs of social services, including welfare payments, county hospitals, and schools, Marquez said.
He said the crisis has not so far caused any budgetary changes in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
In a letter sent last Wednesday to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Dade County manager Joaquin Avino wrote that since 1990, the county has had to absorb more than $106 million in emergency service costs provided to its alien population.
Those costs, Avino said, include more than $102 million in unreimbursed costs to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Dade County's only public hospital; child welfare costs of $3 million; and medical screening tests of about $1 million.
At Moody's Investors Service, Robert Kurtter, a vice president in the state rating group, said it was too early to say if the influx of refugees would affect ratings in the state. but he agreed that the long-term costs would be the most difficult for Florida to deal with.
"Because it is still very-much an evolving situation, the credit implications are not something we can accurately predict at this time," he said.
Kurtter said that although providing social services like medical care and housing could be substantial, these costs would probably be largely absorbed by the federal government -- unlike the costs of schools for young immigrants. The crisis comes as Dade County prepares to sell about $350 million of aviation revenue bonds for its Miami Dade International Airport, including $200 million of new-money debt and $150 million for refunding bonds. Marquez said the recent influx of people from Cuba has not affected the current issuing timetable. He noted that requests for proposals were sent to underwriters on Aug. 2 and are due back Aug. 29. He said he hopes to present a recommendation to the board of coutny commissioners at their first meeting in October, paving the way for a possible sale by the end of the year.