THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY ATTORNEY GENERAL JANET RENO
The Briefing Room
3:33 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: The Attorney General will make a brief statement and then be available to take your questions, as will Doris Meissner, who is the Commissioner of the INS; Mort Halperin, who's the Senior Director for Democracy here at the NSC; and Peter Tarnoff, who is Acting Secretary of State.
So, the Attorney General.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: For many years now, Castro, by his government -- his rigid, repressive government -- has created economic misery in Cuba. That can only be ultimately be resolved by broad-reaching democratic reforms. Once before he tried to export his troubles to this country, and we played his game. We're not going to play his game anymore. The problems of Cuba have got to be solved there by democratic reform, and we must not let this be used as a safety valve to keep the pressure off of him.
He has done this, recognizing that he is exposing people's lives to danger and creating terrible risk for human life, as he lets these people try to cross the Florida Straits just to be a safety valve for his problems. We cannot let that happen.
For those who are concerned about families, for those who are concerned about claims of real political asylum, we have in place in Cuba, and have had in place in Cuba for some time, incountry processing that can permit legitimate claims for asylum to be determined. Each year we admit almost 3,000 people pursuant to this process, and I think it is important for the community to know that this process is in place.
At the same time, there will be concerns about family reunification, and we want to work with all concerned to make sure that legal immigration is used as the process of achieving this goal.
We'd be happy to try to answer your questions.
Q Attorney General, there seems to be some confusion as to what happens to the Cubans after they've been detained if they reach U.S. shores safely. They're not allowed to be sent back to Cuba or outside of the United States. How long will they be detained for? Where will they be detained? Who's going to pay for all of this?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: They're going to be detained in appropriate facilities. What we want to try to do is address the immediate issue now of how we prevent this safety valve from being provided to Castro, how we all work together so that we don't play into his game that he perpetrated in 1980, while at the same time providing protection for those who try to cross the Straits by letting them know there is an alternative of legal immigration. We will properly process these people, provide health screening and appropriate facilities, and then, make judgments down the line.
Q And if I could just follow up -- all of this is consistent with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and it doesn't require any additional act of Congress?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: That is correct. There is much misconception, I have discovered, about the Cuban Adjustment Act. Many people say that it has something to do with entry. It is not relevant to entry into this country. It provides that the Attorney General has authority to adjust status after somebody has been here for a year. And there is no intent, nor effort whatsoever to change the application of that act for those who have been here a year and want their status adjusted.
Q Could you be a little more specific about where the detainees will be -- will it be on the mainland, in your estimation, or elsewhere -- and how long they are likely to be detained before you make a determination of what to do with them?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: You're talking now about those who have come to this country and are being detained.
Q Admitted to the U.S. shores, that's correct.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Those that are currently being detained are being detained at the Krome Detention Center.
Q What about those who will be further detained under this --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: As we address the issue, if it becomes necessary, we will detain them. If Krome is not adequate, we will detain them in appropriate facilities.
Q How long do you estimate they'll be held?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Again, what we're trying to focus on now is an effort to prevent this safety valve from opening for Castro. We want to make sure that we take precautions to provide safety and security. We will address the other issues down the line.
Q So you don't know how long -- is that a fair statement?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: That's a fair statement.
Q Representative Torricelli, who helped write the Adjustment Act, said there was an intent to the act to provide preferential treatment to Cubans, he said, and this goes against the intent of the act. And he declared it illegal, actually.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Again, what we're trying to do is address the issue of entry. And with respect to the Immigration and Naturalization Act, anybody that illegally enters the country may be detained. What we're trying to do is look at this in a humane way, provide protection for Cubans who are the subject of Castro's problems so that they don't come to this country or try to come to this country and risk their lives. There is no intent to punish them. It is an intent to make sure that they use the processes as fairly as possible. And those processes would include, if they came to this country, the opportunity for adjustment.
Q So this is a change in policy. It's not a change in a legal sort of status?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: There is no change in legal status. The policy -- the Immigration and Naturalization Act specifically provides that somebody illegally entering this country may be detained. And we're applying that law, but at the same time making sure that all those in Cuba understand that there is a process in place in Cuba for seeking political asylum; that almost 3,000 people per year are granted political asylum and come to this country through that process; that that is a much safer process and one that should be pursued.
For those that have concerns for their family, again, we want to work with all concerned. Those who may want to proceed, we want to work with them to address the issue of family reunification, but do it according to legal immigration. It has always been our policy to try to pursue legal immigration and take appropriate steps vis-a-vis illegal immigration.
Q When you made the -- when the President made the decision and you made your announcement quite late, there was the thinking that mainly it was because there was a fear of more people coming from Cuba and you wanted to stop that. But also, I understand there was a concern that the Governor of Florida had made it known that he was going to stop the buses, not allow these people to be in Florida, to come on shore. And I just wonder, to what degree was some kind of concern that his not allowing people off buses played in your decision to go ahead and speak out last night?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We had extensive conversations with the Governor and other country and city officials over the day. We were sure that our processes were working correctly. Our decision, again, doesn't relate to any situation that the Governor was concerned about. It relates to what we can do to prevent Castro from using this as a safety valve and to ensure safety for those who seek to come, but who really should use the processes that are currently available in Cuba for legal immigration.
Q What are the prospects, Attorney General Reno, for those reaching U.S. shores to, as the current situation allows, be released once you have -- if you have relatives here -- once you ascertain that they don't have a criminal record or some communicable disease?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We will address those issues down the line. The most important point right now is to not play into Castro's game, not let him dupe us as he did in 1980, but address the issue through legal immigration and right now ensure safety and protection for those who would try to cross the Straits.
Q But is it likely, if they do achieve the circumstances under the current policy, is it still likely that they're going to be released?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Again, we will address that issue. But our primary concern right now is to make sure that we do everything we can to address the humanitarian concerns. You cannot help but look at these people, some elderly women -- I just saw a picture in the Miami Herald of a 91-year-old woman who crossed the Straits -- you see children coming ashore. And then you see a picture of an empty raft. There are other ways to do it.
We can make sure that Castro's problems are solved at home. We can ensure the safety of the people who want democratic reform in Cuba. We can do it through legal immigration. And that is our message. We will address the other issues as the days go by.
Q How are Cuban refugees being treated differently than Haitian refugees? What's the difference here, or is there one?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: In this instance both are being provided protection and safe haven. But with respect to refugees, what we have got to understand and address is that those seeking political asylum -- in this situation, we're looking at migrants -- they are being treated the same way in that both are -- we are trying to address the humanitarians concerns and make sure that their safety is protected.
Q So are you saying that Cubans should ultimately return? Are you hoping that Cubans will decide on their own to go back to Cuba when they realize that --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: No, we're not talking about -- that would be a decision that they would make. We're not discussing repatriation. We're discussing what we can do to provide safe haven for those that would risk their lives.
Q Would you just tell us, bureaucratically, what is done to change the policy of parole that has been in effect? Is it an executive order, or is it just a memo or a directive? And secondly, how will Cuban Adjustment apply? Will it apply differently to refugees that are interned or detained in the United States and those that are detained in Guantanamo should they be held for a year?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Again, what we want to do is to make sure that the Cuban Adjustment Act applies as it should to those who are in this country for a year; that we are not changing the application of that.
Q What about at Guantanamo?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: What we're trying to do with respect to the statement -- the government has the authority to detain anybody who illegally enters this country. And we are exercising that authority, again, for the purpose of making sure that Castro knows he's got to solve his problems at home. We don't want to let up on the pressure. We want to make sure that he understands that democratic reform is the way to achieve the results.
Q By what means is the policy of paroling them routinely been changed? Is there an executive order, or how is that -- just word of mouth?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I've just made a direction that we talked and the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service and I have advised of our policy.
Q According to Cuban officials, the thousands of hours broadcast from South Florida with the fact that you are giving very, very little visas -- legal visas -- is creating for these explosions of this content. What do you say to that?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Again, what we have tried to do is address the issue of immigrant visas in a prompt and orderly way, and we will continue to do everything that we can to address legitimate concerns for legal immigration.
Q Ma'am, does this Cuban Adjustment Act give more benefits to the Cubans than it does to the Haitians and the Mexicans?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: The Cuban Adjustment Act refers just to Cubans, and it provides that the Attorney General has the authority to adjust their status after they've been in this country for a year.
Q Many people, Ms. Reno, are you prepared to declare an immigration emergency in Florida so that funds can be released to the local community?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We want to work with all concerned, and I have talked with both Mr. Avino, the County Manager in Dade County; with the Governor's Office. We will be working with them in every way possible to understand the costs that will be borne by the states and to take appropriate action.
Q Many people are confused about what will happen to the Cubans being sent to Guantanamo Bay. Is it possible they will stay there for months? And once they're there, will they be sent afterwards back to the United States or back to Cuba or to a third country? Has that been decided?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: This will probably be relatively short-term at Guantanamo as we talk to other countries, and we have had discussions with other countries that would permit us to provide safe haven and security and safety in those nations for these people.
Q Given the confusion over what's actually in the Cuban Adjustment Act, et cetera, what are the criteria that would enable someone who is going through a status check to be admitted into the United States? Is it different for Cubans than it is for other refugees? And then, for those at Guantanamo or Krome or wherever who do not meet those criteria, what do you do with them?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Doris, where did you go?
MS. MEISSNER: The criteria for Cubans coming into the United States are the same as for other groups -- if they arrive here illegally, they are subject to detention. As Ms. Reno said, the Cuban Adjustment Act only comes into play a year after people are here.
Q So they have detention and possible deportation?
Q So is that the well-founded fear of persecution?
MS. MEISSNER: That -- no. Well-founded fear of persecution is part of the Refugee Act which is effected through an application for political asylum. Applications for political asylum can be filed by any nationality group. Cubans generally have not filed applications for political asylum because the Cuban Adjustment Act has provided them a vehicle for adjusting their status after being here for a year.
Q Is that what they have to show now as they go through the status here?
MS. MEISSNER: As Ms. Reno said, we're trying to deal with this step by step. And the most important step right now is to prevent the emergency flow. So we'll be answering those questions in the next several days.
Q If that's what the law is --
MS. MEISSNER: But that is the law, yes.
Q Attorney General Reno, what I don't understand is I've heard you say several times here that what you're trying to focus on is not letting Fidel Castro use an outflow of refugees as a pressure valve. Yet, what I keep hearing you say -- indicating is that what we're doing is, one way or the other, we're taking on all of Fidel Castro's refugees. Whether we're going to store them in Guantanamo Bay, or Krome, or, eventually, Homestead, or anything along those lines, why aren't we still supplying him a relief valve to send out all the refugees he wants to for us to take care of and house whether in safe havens or somewhere else?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: The general conclusion is that through this process that people know that they cannot come to this country. It will deter illegal immigration, and we want to focus on the legal immigration, the processes of which are in place.
Q refugees being considered political or economic refugees?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I didn't hear --
Q The Cubans that are coming in, are they considered political or economic refugees?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I think that's -- again, an example of how we sometimes use terms that cause confusion. The right to asylum, or the opportunity for asylum comes about as a result of political persecution. And there are standards that have to be met in order to prove that. And when we talk about asylum and when we talk about refugees, that's what we're talking about.
Q In trying to ward off this outflow of Cubans, aside from providing the incentive of legal immigration processing in Cuba, you're also intensifying the interdiction effort. What is your expectation as to how effective interdiction is going to be with beefed-up Navy and Coast Guard vessels? Are they going to reduce the number of Cubans who reach our shores to a bear trickle, or is it going to be 50-50? What does the administration expect to accomplish with this beefed-up interdiction effort?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: What we hope to do is, again, make sure that we provide the protection for those who have risked their lives, and that we will make sure that we do everything possible to reach anybody who tries to make the trip so that they can be assured that they will reach safe haven.
Q But if I were a Cuban today setting off on a raft, what would be my odds of ending up in Guantanamo as against ending up in detention in the United States?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: The odds of ending up in Guantanamo are going to be very, very great. The odds of ending up in the United States are going to be very, very small.
Q How about deportation -- is that an option?
Q Up until now, have you -- do you have any figures on how many of these illegal landings by Cubans who have, up until the current surge in Florida, say, for a year, and what generally happened to those people? They were not detained, is that correct?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: That is correct.
Q And do you have any idea how many you got per year?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We have those figures and we'll be happy to try to provide them for you.
Q Cubans would be put in third countries, pending what? Forever, or pending their absorption by those countries? What is the point of putting Cubans in third countries?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: What we're trying to do for those that feel that they need safe haven, that it's just not a matter of letting Castro use them as a means of eliminating the pressure, that those that need safe haven, that we will provide it temporarily at Guantanamo, and then work with third countries to provide the safe haven in appropriate countries.
Q There have been reports out of Miami that Castro is opening the AIDS wards. Can you tell us whether there is any indication that he is encouraging people with AIDS to come here, and whether you have any plans for dealing with that, and whether somebody who is HIV positive can get acceptance --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I have not heard that. But what we want to, again, do, as a prosecutor in Miami for 15 years, I watched what happened when Castro, amongst the many wonderful people that were a part of Mariel, how he dumped the dregs of his mental hospitals and his prisons into boats. And what we want to try to do is to make sure that people have safe haven, but that Castro understands that we are not going to play into his hands.
Q Would the rule against going out with boats to bring them in apply in any way to this unit -- that searches for the refugees in airplanes and then directs assistance to them from the Coast Guard and others?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: What we are going to do is as each case -- if we have any instance of a United States flag vessel bringing people into this country illegally, we're going to look at it, and if we have probable cause to believe that the laws of this country have been violated, we're going to take steps to seize the vessel and appropriate steps to prosecute.
Q The airplanes that are marked with dyes and call in the Coast Guard and identify the location of boats and rafts --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Those would certainly be -- what we are concerned about in this whole process is providing humanitarian assistance to people. And clearly when Brothers to the Rescue is trying to do the same thing we are in terms of making sure that people don't die in the Gulf Stream, we want to work with them in every way we can.
Q General, you told your weekly news briefing yesterday morning that you saw no basis for changing the Cuban resettlement policy. Are the issue that you're expressing now things that developed yesterday after talking to Governors Chiles?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: No, it developed before talking to Governor Chiles. At 9:30 p.m. I had a press availability, and at 11:00 p.m. I had the briefing at the National Security Council meeting, and that's when we began to discuss new efforts.
Q A question for Peter Tarnoff. I want to get back to the safe haven thing. Haitians are kept in safe havens pending the ouster or resignation of the regime in Haiti. Are Cubans who are going to be in safe havens in Guantanamo or elsewhere pending the downfall of Fidel Castro?
ACTING SECRETARY TARNOFF: Well, I think that we are looking to other governments, several of whom have responded positively over the course of today, who have indicated to us that they would be willing to take Cubans into safe havens. As the Attorney General indicated, we have not decided what the processing or the status will be in those safe havens as yet. But we can report that governments have shown an interest in accommodating Cubans in the safe havens.
Q And you say you won't send these people back to Cuba?
ACTING SECRETARY TARNOFF: The Attorney General said that repatriation is not being considered.
Q Not under any circumstances? What about those who don't qualify?
Q Which governments --
Q Attorney General Reno, what about those who do not qualify for political asylum?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: One of the things that we have tried to do is in these last years is to provide some means of returning those people whom Castro -- those prisoners and those people who were under criminal charge or under criminal sentence. We will, of course, continue those efforts.
Q So you would return those who don't clearly --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We're going to continue those efforts, of those that were really that Castro dumped from his prisons and have been detained. But in the instance of what we have seen so far, we have not seen that. You can't say for sure, but everything that we've seen indicates that there would be nobody that would be repatriated.
Q Are you taking steps to increase the capacity to do in-country processing of asylum and family applications in Cuba?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We will try to -- in any instance that we have been able to meet -- as I understand it, there is no backlog in the application now. And my hope is if people will understand that that process is in place, we're going to be prepared to match the needs so that there would not be any undue delay.
Q Attorney General, what governments have agreed?
Q What governments, Mr. Tarnoff, have agreed?
ACTING SECRETARY TARNOFF: We're going to let those governments make their own announcement.
END 3:55 P.M. EDT