After two days of conflicting reports that triggered in-fighting between two Maryland congressmen and deep anxieties in a small Cecil County town, the Carter administration yesterday canceled plans to send as many as 20,000 Cuban refugees to an abandoned Navy base in northeast Maryland.
The White House concluded that the estimated $5 million of renovations needed to make the severely dilapidated former Bainbridge Naval Training Center fit for habitation would consume too much time and money to make the site feasible as a processing center, officials said.
Meanwhile, Army officials went ahead with preparations at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., where 2,000 refugees are expected to arrive this weekend, possibly as early as Friday if the flow of refugees taxes the facilities in Fort Chaffee, Ark., where Cubans are now being processed.
Only 900 refugees were processed there on Monday, compared to 5,100 the day before, giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency "a little breathing space" on selecting another processing center, according to agency spokesman Bill Combs.
The decision not to use Bainbridge came two days after Rep. Clarence Long (D-Md.), Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.) and Gov. Harry Hughes were told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the abandoned Navy base in Port Deposit had been selected as one of several refugee processing centers around the country.
"It appeared to be fairly solid. We were under the impression they were going to use it," said Gene Oishi, press aide to Hughes.
However, assistant White House press secretary Claudia townsend said her office was never given a formal announcement that the Bainbridge site had been selected, and General Services Administration officials who toured the former base Monday said they, too, believe it was one of many possible sites under consideration.
Nevertheless, word spread quickly around the state after Long announced Sunday that the White House had told him the Brainbridge center would begin receiving refugees in about 10 days.
Between then and Tuesday, tempers flared among Maryland officials and residents of Port Deposit. Bauman, who represents the district that includes the former base, denounced Long, who is from Baltimore County, for having "callously used the residents of Cecil County for his own political ends."
Agency spokesman Combs traced the confusion to calls on Sunday by his agency's congressional liaison staff, in which "the messages were probably a little more definitive than they should have been."
Because of the furor, he declined to name the "half dozen or so sites" that the agency is still considering as potential refugee centers, although he said he did not believe that any Maryland facilities are on the list.
The Cubans headed for Fort Indiantown Gap, mostly single men, will be issued identification cards and meal tickets and will stay for a minimum of 60 days, Army officials said. In that time, they will be screened by health services, the military, the federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, according to the officials. They will not get social security numbers or food stamps, they stressed.
At the end of their stay at Fort Indiantown Gap each Cuban will receive a bus ticket to his or her destination as well as some pocket money -- $50 for each individual and $100 a family, officials said.