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More complicated was the question of dealing with criminals. Castro's officials had included among the fugitives a certain number of ex-cons as well as political prisoners. Special Miami police officers who helped interview the arrivals thought they had detected a number of known felons, but Immigration and Naturalization Service officials refused to treat most of these refugees any differently. "What are we doing here anyway?" protested Miami Intelligence Officer Richard Marrero. "It's all ridiculous." Yet INS had a point too: How could it check out the alleged offenses committed in Cuba, and would there be any point in trying to return people Castro obviously will not take back? Nonetheless, 209 male refugees were sent for further screening to the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. It is a medium-security facility, where the Cubans relaxed by playing softball, pool, Ping Pong and cards. Said one: "There could never be anything like this in Cuba. Jails really are jails in Cuba."
If there was confusion in Florida, its origin could be traced partly to Washington. At least ten agencies were automatically involved in such a large-scale refugee program. Even though Castro has twice previously opened the gates for Cuban refugees, his latest announcement that anyone could leave Cuba came without warning. There was no immediate guidance from the highest levels. Carter was concentrating on salvaging what he could from the failed Iranian rescue mission. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's resignation left a vacuum at the State Department.
INS was busy trying to draw up regulations that would carry out a major reform of U.S. immigration laws. The new law was designed to broaden, rather than restrict, the admission of refugees, and it had been particularly pushed by Carter's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Edward Kennedy.
The new law eliminated a long-standing assertion that all refugees from Communist countries automatically qualified for U.S. entry. It defines a refugee as a person unwilling or unable to return to his homeland because of "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion." Each individual seeking refuge in the U.S. is expected to provide evidence that he fits one of those categories.
Beyond the normal immigration quotas, the law set 50,000 as the number of refugees who could enter the U.S. each year (compared with 17,400 previously). But it gave the President authority to expand that number after consulting with Congress. Carter has already asked that 231,000 refugees be admitted this year. Some 168,000 of them will come from Indochina, since the U.S. has committed itself to accepting 14,000 of these earlier boat people each month.