President Carter's chief refugee adviser assured members of the House immigration subcommittee yesterday that the federal government will help communities pay for resettling the more than 100,000 Cuban refugees who have entered this country in the last six weeks.
Victor Palmieri, the State Department's coordinator for refugee affairs, said at a hearing that the president will decide in the next week or two how to deal with financial aid for the newcomers.
Congressional leaders from affected states and key committees that deal with refugee problems were briefed at the White House yesterday morning about the options the administration is considering.
Officials who attended said the legislators expressed no clear consensus on which way to go. So far, the administration has refused to call the Cubans "refugees" in the technical sense because that would require full reimbursement for local and state expenses at a time when the country is faced with a growing unemployment rate and a struggle to balance the federal budget.
But Palmieri made clear yesterday that this delicate political question will be resolved with some large infusion of federal aid.
Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) raised the issue at the hearing when he noted that Montgomery County executive Charles Gilehrist had expressed concern about the fiscal impact of resettling an estimated 500 Cuban families in the country.
"The answer is that there's going to have to be impact aid [to schools], some level of benefits to sustain these individuals until they are self-supporting," Palmieri said.
He added later at a break in the hearing that voluntary agencies finding sponsors for the newcomers will also get federal grants -- something they haven't had thus far.
The White House Office of Management and Budget told the House and Senate Budget Committees two weeks ago that the administration would be submitting a $300 million supplemental budget request to cover benefits for approximately 100,000 Cubans.
The total number of refugees passed 104,000 yesterday and Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Costello estimated that the remaining 100 boats in Cuba's Mariel harbor could bring 6,000 to 10,000 more Cubans to Key West, Fla.
At the immigration subcommittee hearing yesterday Palmieri defended the administration's response to the Cuban boat exodus, calling the government's action a spectacular effort in the best humanitarian traditions of the country. He cautioned against rhetoric that could inflamed emotions and make America's tradition as a haven for the world's oppressed appear obsolete.
Rep. George E. Danielson (D-Calif.) told Palmieri he felt that the tradition was no longer valid, noting that when the Statue of Liberty was built the United States was underpopulated and needed immigrants.
"My people say it's time to put a stop to this uninvited immigration," he said. He noted that many of his constituents have relatives in foreign lands who must wait for years before they can come to this country."
"Those Statue of Liberty tenets no longer apply," Danielson said. "We can longer absorb all the distressed of the world."
Rep. Sam B. Hall (D-Tex.) joined the chorus of critics by questioning the lengthly due-process hearings that suspected hardcore Cuban criminals undergo before they can be deported from the United States.
"Has anyone just bound one up and shipped him back?" Hall asked.
In answer to questions about plans for the Cubans involved in a disturbance at Fort Chaffee, Ark., over the weekend, John Macy, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said they will be deported.
Reps. Elizabeth Holzman (D-N.Y.), head of the subcommittee, and Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), the ranking minority member, criticized the administration for what they called its non-policy toward the Cuban exiles.
But Rep. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.) had the harshest words, saying: "The administration, because it is an election year, has vacillated between enforcing the law and opening its arms and hearts for political expeniency.
"The people in our country face difficult economic times and they're not going to stand for the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars to take thousands of exiles foisted upon us because of a lack of foresight and planning by the administration."
The concerns voiced by the House members were echoed by Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Church said: "We must not allow common criminals from Cuban jails, or those who flout our laws by rioting, to remain in the United States."
"These people are not eligible for admission under any criteria, and they should be returned to Cuba without delay," he added.
He said he had asked for such action in a meeting with Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie.
"With more than 7 million Americans out of work, it is hardly surprising that the public does not welcome a chaotic new avalanche of Cuban refugees," Church said.
Administration officials acknowledged that they have been testing congressional opinion on how to treat the Cubans before making a decision, explaining that this is because funding will have to be approved by Congress.
"Right now we're doing it all with mirrors," one senior official said.