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Carter originally set the Cuban refugee quota at 16,000, but when the Peruvian embassy in Havana was inundated by nearly 11,000 Cubans seeking asylum on April 4 and 5, Carter added another 3,500 to the Cuban quota as part of a hemispheric plan to take care of the embassy refugees. After the first planeloads began arriving in Costa Rica for distribution elsewhere, Castro grew angry at the bad publicity the exodus was giving him, particularly in Latin America. He shut off the airlift and opened Mariel instead to the more dangerous and disorderly sea route to the U.S. That in turn prompted Cuban Americans to flock to Key West to hire boats.
As the ragtag fleet began bringing back unexpected numbers of Cubans, with and without immigration papers, INS officials tried to stick to the letter of the new law, which had not yet been tested. They have ruled that each newcomer has to be individually screened, to file for refugee status and show that he had personal reasons to fear he would be persecuted in Cuba for his political beliefs.
Thus the arriving Cubans had good reason to spread horror stories of Castro's La Peligrosidad (the dangerous law), under which many had been jailed because Castro's block-by-block vigilantes considered them "dangerous" or "anti-social." They told of Castro spies in every neighborhood snooping for any hints of antirevolutionary opinion. "There is no freedom whatsoever!" shouted one excited Cuban at Eglin. "The whole place is crazy!"
While INS processed the newcomersmore than a third were cleared by week's end and waiting to be sent on to relatives or other sponsorsthe State Department was trying to curtail the influx by discouraging boat owners from heading for Mariel. This was meant partly to pressure Castro into accepting a more orderly handling of those wishing to leave. (In 1959 he permitted more than 30,000 Cubans to come to the U.S., and between 1965 and 1971 nearly 250,000 arrived via a large airlift.) Again sticking to technicalities of the law, the Administration issued citations that if enforced, will require the boat owners to pay $1,000 fines for each refugee they carried. At last count, 580 such citations had been issued, but it seemed doubtful that the fines in most cases will ever be levied. State Department officials promised to continue to take action, however, against skippers whose boats were dangerously ill-equipped or overloaded.
After Carter committed the U.S. to accepting Cuban refugees, White House Press Secretary Jody Powell outlined the dilemma facing U.S. policymakers. "We will not tow boats back to Cuba," he said. "On the other hand, the U.S. cannot become a place of residence for everyone who wants to come here." The Florida delegation in Congress sought a meeting with Carter and pleaded for placing some limits on the influx of Cubans into their state.