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Secret Plan Prepares for Influx of Refugees Into U.S. : Immigrants: Operation Distant Shore appears aimed at dealing with huge exodus sparked by crises in Haiti or Cuba.


MIAMI — More than 13 years after a tumultuous summer in which 150,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees poured into southern Florida, the federal government is hurrying to complete an emergency immigration plan designed to deal with the next massive refugee influx from the Caribbean.

Called Operation Distant Shore, the secret plan calls for naming a federal coordinator, or "exodus czar," for interdicting refugees at sea, and for sending thousands of migrants to processing centers outside Florida. All refugees would be screened for criminal records and illness.

The plan, which also provides for up to $35 million in federal reimbursements to states to cover the cost of housing, food and health care, is designed to deal with a massive flood of refugees like the one that overwhelmed southern Florida in 1980.

Over a five-month period that year, 125,000 Cubans entered the United States via the chaotic Mariel boatlift, and another 25,000 Haitians arrived aboard leaky wooden sailboats.

No one is willing to predict when another Mariel-type exodus might occur. But Florida officials see any critical event in the Caribbean--such as the death of Cuban President Fidel Castro or anarchy in Haiti--as the trigger for a mass migration.

Officials of the U.S. Justice Department, the lead agency authoring the massive contingency plan, have refused to discuss specifics of Operation Distant Shore. But Florida officials who have draft copies say the plan details actions to be taken by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, local law enforcement offices and public health agencies.

A final version is expected to be completed before the scheduled Oct. 30 return to Haiti of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a move that has already heightened turmoil there. In theory, the plan for dealing with a massive number of refugees attempting to get to Florida is generic; no Caribbean nation is mentioned in Operation Distant Shore. But, clearly, Haiti and Cuba, the historic sources of most illegal migrants to Florida, are the countries both state and federal officials are monitoring most closely.

"The effort to complete the plan has become a little more bordering on urgent" as conditions in those two countries grow more volatile, said Debby Kilmer, the director of Florida's office in Washington.

Added a spokesman for Gov. Lawton Chiles: "There is a sense of urgency, yeah, but not an air of hysteria. Basically, we're concerned that humanitarian needs be met, and our borders be protected. And as the governor has said, we've learned through the Mariel boatlift that Florida alone cannot shoulder a massive influx that places an extra burden on every service."

As the date for Aristide's return to power nears, Haiti has been rocked by increasing violence. One prominent Aristide backer was dragged from a church and murdered in the street Sept. 11, and renegade police officers and thugs have promoted a climate of fear.

Earlier this week, a freighter carrying 297 Haitians headed for the United States was stopped by the Coast Guard and those aboard were returned to Port-au-Prince. That marked the largest single boatload of refugees interdicted at sea since January, according to Coast Guard figures.

At the same time, Cubans continue to make their way to the United States even as Castro relaxes immigration rules in the face of deepening economic privation. As of Friday, 2,125 Cubans have been picked up this year crossing the Florida Straits in rafts or small boats, and dozens more have entered the United States through Mexico, the Bahamas or by defections.

President Ronald Reagan first ordered the Justice Department to fashion an emergency immigration plan in 1982. Over the years, a task force made up of representatives of the Justice Department, the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and state and local officials in Florida have met often and come up with dozens of draft proposals.

Completion of the emergency plan "will make us feel secure," said task force member Nancy Wittenberg, Florida's former refugee coordinator who is now with the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

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