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Remarks on Signing the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 Into Law Before a Joint Session of the Florida State Legislature in Tallahassee, Florida

October 10, 1980

Mr. Speaker, Governor Graham, Senator Chiles, Senator Pepper, Bill Gunter, my other good friends who are here in this beautiful new building typical of the present progress of Florida and the future dreams of an even greater State, members of the State cabinet who've come this morning and honored me, members of the State legislature:

I think of all the human problems that I've had since I've been in the White House, this has been the most severe for me personally, as well. Hardly a day has gone by in the last few months that I haven't had direct communication, either with your Governor or other officials in the State of Florida or with the congressional delegation in Washington, representing your views and your ideas and your problems and concerns.

It would have been easy to demagogue this issue, perhaps some were tempted to do so, but the thing that always impressed itself on my mind was that ours is a nation of immigrants. My parents and grandparents were immigrants, and I would guess that unless some of you are Native Americans, that all of your ancestors were immigrants. It's been difficult for those who came here in generations gone by to be assimilated into a new society. Almost all of us, with the possible exception, of course, of the slaves who came here earlier, came actively seeking freedom, a better life, a chance to worship as we chose, a chance to escape from oppressive regimes, a chance to be assimilated into a heterogeneous society that's America, a chance to worship freely. There was a lot of prejudice against some of those immigrants who came here from Ireland, who came here from Italy, Poland, Indonesia, China, Japan, because they didn't speak our language well and their societal structure and their family structure were different from ours. And that prejudice was real and tangible and was felt very strongly against immigrants ever since our Nation was founded.

Those who'd come here a little earlier said, "We've got our freedom. We've been assimilated into this great country, now let's don't let others come and disturb our privileged way of life." That could have been the attitude expressed by Floridians in this last few troubled months, but it was not, and I'm proud of what you've done.

I want to congratulate Senator Dick Stone for the good work he did on this bill, and Dante Fascell who worked day and night, Ed Stack who was in the forefront of making sure that the problems absorbed by Florida were shared by the Federal Government in financial terms, and the men and women on this stage with me, a couple of whom will speak after I do.

This bill signing is important, not only to you but to this country, because this is not just a Florida problem, it's a Federal problem, it's a national problem. And I want to let you know this morning—as I have felt from the very beginning, constrained as I was by the law and by appropriations and by restraints of a bureaucracy that's not quick to move—that I assume the responsibility, as President, for the problem generated recently by the unexpected immigration from Cuba and particularly from Haiti as well.

I'm glad this morning to sign the Refugee Education Assistance Act, and there's no better place to sign it than here in the beautiful Florida Capitol. This legislation means that $100 million will immediately be available to the communities of Florida and a few other States to help reimburse them for expenses involved in the recent influx of people from Cuba and from Haiti.

The amount of the Federal share of this cost is flexible; it's up to me. The judgment that I have made is that the Federal Government should assume 100 percent of the cost. The items for which the Federal Government's responsibility will lie will be a matter of agreement between our agencies and those of Florida and Dade County and others involved. We also have funds in this continuing resolution to help in the resettlement problem.

This has been a difficult period for you, especially. It's required a massive emergency effort to accommodate this large number who are seeking freedom and a new life in this country. It could not have happened under more difficult circumstances. As many as three or four thousand people per day were pouring into the southern part of Florida in one particular time period. We've processed them at centers in Florida, as you know, and Arkansas where the problems were very difficult, in Wisconsin where the cooperation was hard to find, in Pennsylvania, other places in this country. And we're presently preparing a center to be used, if necessary, in Puerto Rico.

Now we're carrying out the equally difficult task of helping these newcomers enter the mainstream as productive members of our society. The most immediately important features of the bill I'm signing is title 5, the Fascell-Stone amendment. Congress has already appropriated $100 million in reimbursements for cash and medical assistance and social services provided to these newcomers; this amendment makes that money available. Also, I pledge to seek from Congress additional funds, as necessary, to meet the Federal Government's responsibility in these programs.

Another significant feature of this act will help Florida communities. It's a 3-year program of grants to States to help local education agencies meet the needs of Cuban and Haitian adults and children. The bill also authorizes aid to school districts greatly affected by the influx of children from Indochina.

Many of you here worked conscientiously, tirelessly, to help meet the urgent needs created overnight by these extraordinary circumstances. This has not been easy for you; it's not been easy for the other people of Florida; it's not been easy for the President or for other people in this country.

The behavior of the Cuban officials during this exodus period violated international law and standards of common decency. The only recent precedent was the flight of the boat people from Vietnam. As you know, in recent months, some who fled from Cuba died on the voyage, and more would have died had not our Coast Guard and Navy carried out more than 1,000 rescue missions so effectively. I have deployed a whole flotilla of ships between the Florida Keys and Mariel Harbor to try to make sure that we could restrain the flow of boats down to Cuba, but once they were loaded with human beings and coming back to this country that those human beings' lives were not endangered. In my judgment, that was compatible with the principles and ideals of a great humanitarian and freedom-loving country.

Also, we're continuing to identify those Cuban entrants with criminal histories and mental illnesses and are placing them in appropriate institutions. And while we've emphasized our difficulties, I believe history will write that we did well. About 90 percent of those who entered have already been resettled satisfactorily in the United States. The Federal Government worked closely and effectively with State and local leaders, with volunteer agencies, and with individual families.

This act is a good example of that kind of partnership. Finally we've shown that once again, the American people accepted and gave new hope to yet another group of people accepting and yearning for and finally acquiring freedom. This is one of our Nation's oldest and most humane traditions. You were indeed a part of history.

History has never been easy. When people are tested and stand the test, then the history of our country has been good. And America has seldom failed to meet humanitarian needs and to marshal our resources in a proper fashion when we have been tested under stress. The people of Florida have indeed made me proud.

It's with a great deal of pleasure that I now sign this act, following which I would like to ask Senator Lawton Chiles and then Senator Claude Pepper to respond.

[At this point, the President signed the bill into law. Following the remarks of the other officials, the President resumed speaking as follows:]

That would be a good finale for this- [laughter] —session, but I would like to add one additional word. Our problems are not completely over, as you know. This will undoubtedly be a responsibility that we'll share for months in the future. I've decided to move all of the remaining refugees who've not yet been settled into Arkansas, and Bill Clinton and the Arkansas Legislature are cooperating very well with this necessary move.

We have still a desire, commitment to let those Cubans who have come here and have changed their mind be returned to Cuba. We also have a commitment that those who've come here as so-called undesirables who have serious criminal records be returned to Cuba, as they should be, and we won't stop in our effort to settle this entire problem in a way compatible with our own ideals and with the American law. In the use of emergency funds that I've allotted to Florida in recent months, I have to admit that I may have stretched the law just a little bit, but it was necessary, and I think the Congress and the courts would understand the special circumstances involved.

As Lawton Chiles pointed out, our American laws just have not contemplated large numbers of refugees, several hundred or several thousand per day, arriving here not having been screened and assessed and with no preliminary plans having been made. But I will continue to work closely with you. And as the weeks go by, if the circumstances should change, we have formed a kind of a sense of partnership that, in my judgment will stand us in good stead with any unanticipated developments in the days to come.

Again, I'd like to repeat the deepest feelings of my heart by saying again how proud I am of the people of Florida.

Note: The President spoke at 8:03 a.m. before a joint session of the Florida State Legislature in the House of Representatives Chamber of the State Capitol.

As enacted, H.R. 7859 is Public Law 96422, approved October 10.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks on Signing the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 Into Law Before a Joint Session of the Florida State Legislature in Tallahassee, Florida Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250899

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