A federal judge today signed an order to free 380 Cuban refugees detained for more than a year in the federal penitentiary here because they lacked U.S. entry papers.
But U.S. District Court Judge Marvin H. Shoob agreed to consider on Friday the government's request that he delay his order so a special Justice Department panel can review the cases of most of the Cubans he has agreed to release.
If he denies the request for a delay, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Castellani said the government would go to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "so we don't let out anyone who is dangerous."
This afternoon's judicial brinksmanship in the judge's chambers over the fate of the Cubans -- among some 1,800 "Freedom Flotilla" refugees put behind bars here for alleged crimes in Cuba -- is not expected to interfere with freedom for 155 Cubans the judge ordered freed first, according to prison and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials. The government said it would not oppose their release because they were given a green light by the special government review panel earlier this week.
The U.S. Catholic Conference, which has resettled 60,000 of the 125,000 Cuban refugees, said at least 17 Cubans on the list are scheduled for release from Atlanta's federal penitentiary Friday morning. Close relatives are waiting to sponsor them in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The rest are expected to be freed, perhaps by the end of next week, as soon as sponsors are confirmed, medical exams administered and travel arrangements made.
The fate of the remaining 225 Cubans remains in doubt, however, pending any possible court delay to allow government officials to review their cases. The appeals court, however, has denied earlier government requests to block release of two Cubans ordered freed by federal judges.
In court, the government has not objected to releasing any of the 380 Cubans because they might be dangerous. But Castellani said today that he had to drop objections to their release because the judge had defined the grounds for exclusion "so narrowly."
Refugees, under immigration regulations, are excludable from this country if they committed any crimes at home, represent a threat to national security or lack entry papers. Judge Shoob said that keeping the Cubans in a maximum security prison for 14 months violated appeals court rulings that detention of any deportable alien for more than a few months solely because he or she lacked entry papers amounted to arbitrary imprisonment.
Although the judge ruled that the 380 Cubans he has ordered released represent little or no threat, Justice Department spokesman Art Brill said some scheduled for release may be dangerous.
"They aren't all chicken stealers," said Brill. Referring to the total 1,800 prisoners, he said, "Now in the pen are Cubans who have admitted to 121 murders, 544 robberies, 50 rapes, 23 child molestations, 473 thefts, 222 breaking and enterings, 39 arsons, 222 assaults, and 39 assaults on federal officials. They've been held these months because some couldn't be released without endangering the community. We've got enough criminals walking the streets already."
Castellani said that in some cases immigration judges overlooked any alleged crimes committed by the detainees because they believed lack of entry papers were sufficient grounds to exclude them. "The general public has a right to be protected," said Castellani. "We don't know if there's anyone dangerous in the last group. The department just wants to have those cases reviewed by experts."
Shoob has divided the remaining jailed Cubans into categories, according to their alleged crimes, and today agreed to postpone hearing their cases, set for Sept. 21, "if the government can demonstrate to this court" that enough staff have been assigned to review the cases and make parole decisions "to allow the government to do what it should have done a long time ago."