The Carter administration's announced policy of trying to stem the flow of Cubans fleeing their homeland continued yesterday to bump into the reality of new boatloads of refugees.
As the number of arrivals passed 8,000, it appeared that the only effective enforcement tool available was the intermittent foul weather that threatened the "Freedom Flotilla" in the Florida Straits again yesterday.
At odds are the American tradition of providing haven for refugees of other nations and the feeling that the country simply is not willing to handle another tide of refugees, as it did the Cubans in the '60s and the Indochinese in the '70s, in a time of declining economic opportunities.
Thus, the administration announces on one hand new details of its plan to set up a processing center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to accommodate 10,000 more Cuban refugees within 10 days, and on the other hand, federal law enforcement officials in Florida continue to tell incoming boat owners they face a fine of $1,000 for each refugee they bring into U.S. ports.
The State Department says the latter policy will somehow stem the flood of refugees. Just how isn't clear.
"The situation is still evolving," one official said. "We hope what's going on politically will settle down enough so we can find the answers."
Among the questions are how or whether to deal with Fidel Castro, who is trying to score propaganda points against the United States to cover his own embarrassment at the thousands of people fleeing his rule, and what kind of help to expect from the United Nations and the countries of Latin America.
The sputters and starts in the administration policy have been painfully evident in the last week, since the first State Department briefings about the "hard line." It was clear again yesterday during a meeting with local officials at the National Association of Counties.
At that meeting, officials from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in south Florida took turns criticizing the federal government's response to the Cubans as slow and contradictory.
Eileen Maloney, Dade County's federal aid coordinator, pointed out that Dade set up a processing center in a local park within two hours, while it took the federal government more than a week to decide to set up a similar facility at Eglin.
She said the crisis was costing the county $50,000 a day, though most of the burden was being borne by the local Cuban community, which is providing doctors, food, clothing and money. And she said federal checks to incoming Cubans had been cut off without explanation Thursday night.
State Department officials responded that they were doing their best to coordinate a federal response. But they admitted that the current procedure of processing the Cubans as applicants for asylum does not permit federal reimbursement of state and local aid.
Several representatives charged that the administration was treating the Cubans far better than the thousands of Haitians already in Florida. A suit in federal court in Miami is challenging the government's finding that the Haitians are economic, rather than political, refugees. There has been testimony in the case that federal authorities jailed and deported Haitians, and refused to let them seek work or receive welfare benefits.
"We're back to running an underground railroad (to help the Haitians)" one county official said. And several pleaded, "Give us a policy."
Clark Israel, Washington representative from the city of Miami, said, "Our country should be in a posture of open arms. We don't see any more dramatic way to make a statement. Denial of refugee status is beyond our understanding."
After the meeting, he added: "Why isn't President Carter down in Key West with open arms, saying 'Welcome' from the revolution that failed?"
Ron Copeland, from the State Department's office of refugee affairs, tried to reassure the local officials that the new Refugee Act of 1980 was created to make equal treatment of all potential refugees mandatory. One of the difficulties is that the law is only a few months old and its provisions are untested.
Copeland noted that continuing unstable conditions around the world would create pressure on the United States to take more refugees. But he also said that current economic conditions here make it harder to find financial and political support for all social programs.
"We have the delicate task of balancing services for our citizens with those available for refugees," he said.
Victor H. Palmieri, the coordinator for refugee affairs at State, told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the administration plans to admit more than 230,000 refugees to the United States this year -- most of them Indochinese.
That was before Castro opened the floodgates.