At a White House press conference, Mr Clinton said Cuban 'boat people' intercepted by the US Coast Guard would be sent to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 15,000 Haitians rescued in similar circumstances are being held. Illegal immigrants who reached the US coast would be sent to processing centres and treated like anyone else who arrived without proper papers.
The official Cuban news agency Prensa Latina called the announcement a 'new and dangerous element' in US immigration policy.
Mr Clinton's move came in response to urgent pleas from Florida's Governor, Lawton Chiles, whose state has had to cope with an influx of almost 8,000 Cubans so far in 1994, including nearly 3,000 this month alone.
Mr Clinton is determined to avoid a repeat of the infamous Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 Cubans arrived in the US over a five-month period. Such a crisis would compound his current acute political difficulties.
In an attempt to surmount one of those difficulties, the President announced important concessions on the crime bill that was humiliatingly rejected by the House last week. He is now ready to accept cuts of 10 per cent in the spending provisions of the measure.
But Cuba dominated proceedings, on what was Mr Clinton's 48th birthday. Despite his promise that refugees from the island would be treated like those from any other country, Mr Clinton gave no hint he was yet ready to end sanctions against the Castro regime.
The President said that as in the Mariel affair, Fidel Castro was deliberately permitting refugees to leave. This was a 'cold-blooded attempt' to retain his grip on Cuba. Mr Castro was 'trying to export to the US the crisis he has created in Cuba'.
Mr Clinton also announced a big increase in US Coast Guard patrols of the shark-infested 90 mile straits between Havana and Florida.
The President is risking a backlash in the powerful Cuban-American community centred on Miami. But initial reaction there was mixed. The community has no desire to see a repeat of Mariel, when President Castro dumped many criminals and mental patients on an unwitting US.
Most Cuban Americans in any case vote Republican. It is far more important for Mr Clinton to help Governor Chiles, who faces a tricky re- election campaign this autumn. In Washington, however, senior Republicans lashed out at the curbs.
Nor was it clear how they would work in practice. Mr Clinton said the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966, which hitherto has amounted to asylum without question for Cuban migrants, would remain the basis of US policy. It is virtually inconceivable that an illegal immigrant would ever be returned home, as Haitian boat people frequently have been. Instead, the US is likely to urge more Cubans to seek legal visas.Reuse content