The open hangar at North Krome refugee camp, a former missile base on the edge of the Everglades, bustles with Cubans just off the boats in Key West. Harried relief workers from half a dozen volunteer agencies sit at trestle tables helping them fill out questionnaires. Phone calls are placed to various corners of the United States in search of relatives, sponsors, or jobs.
This was the scene in early fall when several hundred Cubans were still arriving at North Krome every morning.
Earlier this year several thousand had poured in each day. Today the flood has slowed to a mere trickle. The Cuban government has virtually turned off the emigration tap. And the Carter administration has shifted to Puerto Rico some of the burden of sheltering the newcomers.
But the problem of resettling that earlier refugee inrush remains.
"It's getting a lot harder to find them jobs or even sponsors," laments an International Rescue Committee official. In the beginning, most Cubans wanted to stay in Florida, agency officials say, and the great majority have, in fact, been resettled in Miami. Those who remain in camps appear willing to go anywhere there is work.
But most Cubans interviewed by this reporter in refugee camps seem glad to have made it this far, despite the problems of starting life anew. In Cuba they were often told they would be treated like dogs in the United States. Instead, they have found overworked volunteers patiently helping them find a new home or employment.
"I know that life can be very difficult here," remarks an elderly man. "But I am happy. For the first time in 20 years my family will be together again."
Alfredo S., a farmer from western Cuba, managed to get out with his wife and son. He requests anonymity for fear of recrimination against family members still on the island. "We had wanted to leave for a long time," he says. "We saw no future. In Cuba today there is no freedom."
Southern Florida has been a magnet for Caribbean refugees ever since the first asylum seekers fled the Castro regime in 1959. Haitians fleeing wretched economic conditions and severe political persecution began turning up eighty years ago.
But the 1980 flotilla brought some 125,000 Cubans, and about 83,000 of them have settled in the Miami area. This has stirred Anglo resentment. Even before the new arrivals, Miami's 600,000 Cubans made up 34 percent of the population.
Dade County, which includes Miami, was declared a bilingual community in 1973 and given its own Latin affairs office. Its decidedly Hispanic flavor is nourished by Spanish-language radio and TV stations, newspapers, stores, churches, schools, and billboards.
Now, some Anglo businessmen are complaining that they have lost a substantial part of their local market because many Cubans are dealing among themselves. "I just don't feel I'm living in the United States anymore," says one Anglo storeowner.
As a result, Dade County officials say more and more Anglos are moving to other communities. And on Nov. 4, by a 3-to-2 margin, Dade County voters adopted an ordinance requiring all county documents and meetings to be in English only. Proponents had argued it would help reduce social and racial divisions. Cubans countered that it would only fan tensions.
Harboring resentments of their own, some blacks blame the Hispanics for snapping up jobs and aggravating the city's 12 percent unemployment rate. "People just won't hire you if you don't speak Spanish," mutters one black in a downtown cafe.
Less anger is being vented toward the 30,000 to 40,000 Haitians here, many of whom have grabbed the menial jobs others didn't want. But the Haitians face legal difficulties in remaining in the US since the government considers them economic and not (like the Cubans) political refugees.
The Carter administration has agreed to let the Cuban and Haitian refugees in the United States as of Oct. 10 remain. Congress could pass legislation granting them permanent resident-alien status.
"There has always been a clear case of discrimination against the Haitians ever since the first boats started coming in 1972," says the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Bryan Walsh of the Miami Catholic Service Bureau. "The Haitians are the first mass exodus of refugees in the United States who claim to be political yet are incapable of proving it."
Meanwhile, conditions are reportedly becoming still more unstable in Haiti, and "boat people" arrivals in the US have been rising. Some 300 Haitians landed in a single 24-hour period in mid-October.
Next: The future, what can be done