MIAMI -- Thousands of Cuban refugees who came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift swamped makeshift immigrations centers today to apply for permanent resident status under a new government program.
The Cubans lined up at centers throughout Miami's Little Havana section, crowding around tables where community organizations were collecting the applications.
'I'm very proud to get this opportunity,' said Marta Sorio-Santos, 29, as she waited in line at a table set up beside the parking lot of a 15-story office building in the heavily Cuban Little Havana section.
'I know my life will be better because of it,' she said. 'Now, my family in Cuba can come soon.'
'My prayer has been answered,' said Humberto Diaz, 57. 'I wait a long time for this.'
Officials estimated as many as 100,000 Cuban immigrants who entered the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift would begin applying today for permanent resident status under the program -- 90,000 of them in Florida alone.
'The total number of immigrants in the Mariel boatlift was 125,000, and we suspect that the great majority of them will apply for resident status,' Acting District Director Virgil Salois ofthe Immigration and Naturalization Service said.
Salois said INS officials estimate there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Cuban 'Mariels' in south Florida. He said the remaining immigrants are spread throughout the country, with the highest concentrations outside Florida being in New York, Newark, N.J., and Chicago.
Under the new Cuban Adjustment Act, the INS is asking all Cubans who entered the country during the boatlift to register for permanent resident status this month at several agencies that have volunteered to help.
Once registration is complete, interviews are to be held with the applicants, then district directors across the nation will determine which refugees will be allowed permanent status in the country.
'I'm sure a vast majority of them will be approved because many of the Marielitos have made a contribution and become an asset,' said Perry Rivkind, director of the INS office in Miami. 'The only ones who would be considered for deportation are in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta because they were considered a threat.'
Officials from the United States and Cuba were in New York last week working on an agreement over the repatriation of unwanted Mariel refugees. They said further conversations between the two countries would be necessary before a final agreement could be worked out.
Although naturalization can take up to five years, the new three-phase project is expected to be completed in about a year.
About 125,000 Cubans fled to the United States in the spring and summer of 1980 when Cuban leader Fidel Castro opened the Mariel Harbor to anyone seeking to leave.
They were paroled into the country and legally classified as 'Cuban entrants' whose immigration status is pending, Rivkind said.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which would have allowed Marielitos and Haitian refugees to apply for permanent resident status, failed to pass through Congress last year. Rivkind said the new program was developed because of the bill's failure.
Haitians could not legally be included in the new program because, unlike Cubans, there are no federal naturalization laws for them, Rivkind said.