Dashed hopes of early release and uncertainty about how U.S. immigration laws would be enforced combined to ignite the riots by Cuban exiles that swept through the federal prisons at Atlanta and Oakdale, La., civil rights lawyers said Monday.
"The Cubans don't know who is at risk and who is not at risk" of deportation, Arthur C. Helton, director of the political asylum project of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, said. "You have both the soaring expectations that were dashed and the uncertainty as to who is subject and who is not."
Of the 125,000 Cubans who fled Fidel Castro's island in 1980 in a flotilla of small boats from the fishing port of Mariel, about 3,000 were classed as "excludable aliens" because of criminal activity or mental illness, and were jailed.
Such individuals usually are deported, but in the case of the Cubans, no nation was willing to accept them until last Friday, when Havana reinstated an agreement calling for them to be returned to Cuba.
Last year, when the chances of deporting the Cubans seemed to be remote, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began a case-by-case review to determine which inmates could be released, INS Director Alan C. Nelson said Monday. Many of the prisoners had expected to be freed soon.
"There is an excellent chance that most of them would have been released," Helton said. But in the wake of Cuba's agreement to accept the refugees and the subsequent rioting, no one knows just what will happen to any of the prisoners.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III on Monday promised a moratorium on deportations if the prisoners end the uprisings and release their hostages. But there is no way to determine what will occur once the moratorium ends.
Most of the Cubans who reached Florida in the Mariel boatlift were given refugee status, allowing them to remain in the United States indefinitely. But the permission did not apply to persons who were mentally ill or had committed nonpolitical crimes in Cuba. In addition, a refugee could lose his right to live in the United States by committing a crime in this country.
In 1984, Cuba agreed to accept 2,746 of the "excludables." However, on May 20, 1985, after only 201 persons had been deported, Castro canceled the agreement to protest the inauguration of Radio Marti, the U.S. government's Spanish-language broadcasts to Cuba. After lengthy negotiations, Cuba agreed to reinstate that agreement Friday.
J. Michael Quinlan, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, said that only about 1,200 of the original 2,746 were still in federal custody. The rest are in state or local custody, halfway houses or have been released. However, other Mariel exiles have been imprisoned for crimes committed since then.
It was not clear whether Cuba would accept up to 2,545 prisoners, the number that would bring total deportations up to the original quota of 2,746, or whether Cuba would take only the prisoners on the original list that the U.S. government still wants to deport.
Most of the Cubans in custody have already completed the sentences for the crimes for which they were convicted. However, they were held while the government tried to find a nation that would accept them.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled on July 12, 1985, that the prisoners had no constitutional rights and could be held indefinitely. That decision overturned a district judge's ruling that had ordered the Justice Department to free the prisoners or show why they should be held.
Frank Calzon, executive director for Of Human Rights, a nonprofit Washington organization that has been monitoring human rights observance in Cuba since 1974, called on Meese to make public the names, charges and other relevant information about the individual prisoners.
"Many of these individuals have families in the United States," said Calzon, a former director of the Cuban-American Foundation. "A large group are said to be Cubans who violated American laws and have served their sentences in state prisons. After completing their sentences, instead of being released, they were turned over to INS for indefinite incarceration.
"After so many years in federal prisons, the Cuban prisoners ought to be given the same constitutional rights as American prisoners before they are deported to Castro's Cuba," he told Meese.
In a dispatch from Havana, Reuters quoted an unnamed Cuban official as saying that the deported Cubans will be treated leniently if they return. He said the 201 who were deported earlier "are now on the street just like any other Cuban."
Helton said his group is urging the U.S. government to consider each case on its own merits.
"The real risk is that the Cubans will be treated on a lump-sum basis," he said. "That certainly seems to be the intention of the Cuban government and the U.S. authorities. Some of these people have close relatives in the United States who would suffer hardships if these individuals were deported."
What became known as the Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees occurred after a busload of Cubans seeking political asylum crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana on April 1, 1980.
Angered by the incident, in which a Cuban guard was killed, Castro announced that he was withdrawing police protection for the embassy, and within a week, 10,000 persons crammed into the embassy compound seeking refuge.
A stalemate continued until President Jimmy Carter referred to Cuba in a statement as a police state and declared: "Our hearts go out to the almost 10,000 freedom-loving Cubans."
Castro responded by opening the port of Mariel to boats that would take the refugees away, along with any other disaffected residents who wanted to leave. On April 18, the boats began arriving in the United States.
Before the Cuban and U.S. officials negotiated an end to the exodus on Sept. 26 of that year, 125,000 Cubans had sailed to the Florida shore, including thousands of criminals and insane asylum inmates that the regime had freed and put on boats.