`How Many More People Can We Absorb?'

Visiting Fort Lauderdale from their home in central Florida in late August, Tom and Linda Schmidt watched as a rickety raft of inner tubes and Styrofoam washed ashore in front of their beachfront hotel. The tiny craft underscored the dangerous risks taken in recent weeks by thousands of Cuban balseros. But the Schmidts, while sympathetic to the rafters' plight, say the state can't take any more refugees. "Why should our tax dollars go for all of these people?" Tom asks. "Between the Haitians and Cubans, how many more people can we absorb? Enough is enough."

That's a common sentiment in Florida these days. The pictures of Cubans battling the seas aboard flimsy craft rivet the world's attention. But it's a painful and familiar sight to Floridians, particularly south Floridians, for whom variations of this geopolitical drama have replayed for decades.

HARD CHOICES. South Florida has long been a way station for refugees fleeing the economic and political ills of the Caribbean and Latin America. First were the planeloads of Cubans aboard the "freedom flights" in the 1960s and 1970s. Then came the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought 125,000 refugees, mostly Cubans but also Haitians, to Miami. The Sandinista reign in Nicaragua marked the arrival of thousands more refugees, with the influx so great in 1988 and 1989 that some were housed temporarily in a Miami baseball stadium. And more subtle than the boatloads of Haitians and thousands of Cubans have been waves of Peruvians, Venezuelans, and others from South and Central America.

As open-minded about Miami's enriched cultural milieu as I am--it's one of the attributes of the city that I enjoy--I confess a part of me shares the Schmidts' concerns. The strain on south Florida's already stretched social services, hospitals, schools, and charities will be enormous if another huge wave of refugees arrives.

South Floridians are paying an emotional cost as well. Midway through the crisis, I counsel a close friend, wrought by worry about her mother who is still in Cuba and whom she hasn't seen for six years. She has been trying for nearly two years to get her mother into the U.S. through legal channels for a visit. Permission has been denied by U.S. authorities in Cuba because they think her mother, like so many Cubans, simply won't return home.

Now her mother had called, saying there was an opportunity to take a motorboat to Florida. Should she go? My friend agonized over what to say, and I agonized with her. Although her mother is physically strong enough for the trip, I counseled against it, warning that she would most probably end up in Guantnamo, where conditions are harsh. My friend agrees and tells her mother not to come.

A week later, my sister-in-law tells me she is monitoring Cuban radio and searching available lists for news of cousins rumored to have left. She has heard nothing so far. Another group of cousins arrived by boat last December, and she helped clothe and feed them before other family members took over. At Sunday mass at the church where I am a member, the sermon focuses on how ignoring a plea for help is the same as refusing it. Outside the front door is a battered raft and a special collection plate--but dollars seem a small tribute to such human courage.

Still, dollars are what Florida officials and federal authorities are wrangling over. The recent talks between the U.S. and Cuba could add to the tab already calculated by Governor Lawton Chiles, who in April sued the federal government for $2.6 billion to cover costs of legal and illegal immigration. With the talks over, the number of rafters may decline, as more Cubans apply for the roughly 20,000 visas that will be provided by the U.S. each year. But Florida still will attract the majority of the legal Cuban refugees.

One blessing: The costs won't be as high as with an influx of illegal immigrants. Those who qualify for legal immigration generally have family sponsors. And they're eligible for federal aid in their first eight months here. After that, it's hoped they will have found jobs. But Chiles is taking no chances. Shortly after the details of the agreement were announced, Chiles issued a statement assuring Floridians that if an impact is felt in the state, he'll ask the feds to pony up or resettle some of the refugees in other states.

BIG BURDEN. As for Florida's lawsuit, the U.S. is seeking to have it dismissed, but Chiles is pressing on. "There's no reason that Florida should have to pay the cost of national immigration policy," says Florida Assistant Attorney General Louis F. Hubener.

Federal immigration policy isn't the whole story. A dramatic change in the pattern of immigration to the U.S. hits Florida hard--and will continue to do so. In 1940, 70% of immigrants to the U.S. arrived from Europe. By 1993, that number had dwindled to just 15%, and the largest number, 44%, were from Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a state study. The most popular destination for these arrivals: south Florida. In Hialeah, the second-largest city in Dade County after Miami, nearly 7 of 10 residents are foreign-born.

Meanwhile, Florida is continuing to shell out big bucks for schools, health care, and other services for the new arrivals. "The taxpayers for the state of Florida are really shouldering the burden for the federal government," says Dade County Assistant Superintendent Henry Fraind. And if the Schmidts are any indication, Floridians are growing increasingly weary of carrying that load.