Omar Bustamante

Everyone argues about mass immigration, but how does it actually work? How could a local government possibly cope with a sudden influx of migrants who urgently need housing, education, and health care—and who are guaranteed a green card?

Well, over 20 years after its last refugee crisis, Miami is about to find out.

Thanks to an unusual agreement among several Central American governments, thousands of Cuban migrants who have been stuck in immigration limbo will now be able to enter the United States on a path to citizenship, and most of them are expected to head to southern Florida.

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This impending refugee crisis has been building for months. As Fusion’s Tim Rogers has documented, Cuban migrants aren’t just using rafts anymore. Instead, they’re taking a 5,000-mile land route from South America through Central America to reach the U.S. border in Texas.

But recently, some 8,000 of them have been bottlenecked in Costa Rica by the Nicaraguan government's refusal to grant them passage. The migrants endured for months with an uncertain future. Then, a few weeks ago, an unexpected announcement came: nearly all the Central American governments agreed to a plan to carry the migrants by plane from Costa Rica to El Salvador—bypassing Nicaragua. From there, they would be bussed into Mexico, toward the U.S. border crossing at Laredo, Texas.

A few new ways to get from Cuba to Miami.
Omar Bustamante

(Nicaragua, a strong Cuban ally which views the migrants as traitors to Cuba's communist Revolution, did not participate in the plan.)

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Last Wednesday, flights began transferring the migrants towards their goal of reaching the U.S. They will continue until the estimated 8,000 have set foot on American soil, setting the political asylum process in motion.

And today, the city of Miami, which lies at the end of the epic migration route, is starting to come to terms with the fact that it will likely receive thousands of those refugees in the coming weeks.  Regional administrators say they need money from Washington to help, but it’s not yet clear how much they’ll get—or when.

Last week, the Miami-Dade County School Board unanimously approved a request to the federal government to provide additional funding for the expected arrivals, as well as those that have already been trickling in as part of the newest wave of Cuban migration.

“We are on the front line,” school board member and county mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado said at last week's meeting. “They just show up at school, and we just deal with it.”

Since July of last year, the district has enrolled nearly 4,000 new Cuban students, the school board said in a statement issued with the federal funding request. "And more are expected," it noted.

The cost of schooling a typical student per school year is about $7,000, but for a refugee it typically costs about $2,100 more, a school district official told Fusion. The added cost comes because the students often require additional resources for language and computer proficiency.

A specific figure was not attached to the request for more funding, but the school district estimates that it might require up to $41 million to meet its needs. Last school year, about 15,200 students from other countries were newly registered in the school district. This year, it expects the number to reach about 20,000.

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Officials and civic leaders are also scrambling to avoid a rise in homelessness. "We're close to capacity all the time," Ron Book, an influential state lobbyist and chairman for the Homeless Trust, a quasi-governmental organization aimed at ending homelessness in Miami, told Fusion of local shelters. "So if you get ten more bodies, 100 more bodies, or 3,500 more bodies into the community, we won't simply be at capacity, we will be beyond capacity."

The group has asked for additional federal funding to combat the increased burden, in hopes of avoiding a humanitarian crisis. A new homeless count is taking place at the end of the month, Book said, but a few things are already clear on the ground. "We know there are more [homeless] bodies here than were here a year ago, and we know there are more immigrant bodies than there were a year ago," Book said.

"The federal government has a responsibility to address it," he added. "They cannot simply leave it to us in hopes that we can float a loan to deal with what is otherwise a Washington problem."

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Cuban migration has jumped up by 78 percent since President Obama announced the new Cuban policy in December of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.

The reason, as Cubans en route to the U.S. told Fusion in Central America, is a pervasive fear that Obama's newly warming relationship with Cuba will bring an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants Cuban nationals permission to stay in the country like political asylees as soon as they set foot on American soil. After a year and a day, they can apply for permanent residency.

No other country receives that special treatment from U.S. immigration law.

A Cuban family poses for a photo while stuck on the Nicaraguan border
Tim Rogers

The controversy of Obama's decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Havana is uniquely felt in Miami, where residents of Cuban descent comprise nearly half the city's population. As a result, the response to the expected influx of refugees has become overtly political. A triad of local U.S. Congressional Republican leaders have written three open letters to President Obama, pinpointing his policy shift as the reason for the uptick, which they claim is due to "escalating repression and desperation" on the island since the policy was changed.

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The group, consisting of U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — all Cuban-Americans — suggest the administration is not being proactive in handling the ongoing increase of Cuban migrants, much less the expected bulk surge.

"We are concerned that the increase of Cuban refugees into our communities, and the lack of a federal response, effectively will amount to an unfunded federal mandate," it continued.

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In a letter provided to Fusion by the Homeless Trust, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responded to a request for increased federal funding of refugee programs in Miami-Dade County. The letter, which was addressed to U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), noted that Florida received about $155 million in federal funding for refugee services, including an additional bump of $28.6 million which came last June, "in recognition of the increased pressure on these programs."

Starting in fiscal year 2016, which begins in July, federal refugee funds will start including an additional "set-aside" bin for Cuban and Haitian arrivals, the letter said. Florida will receive the bulk of those funds. However, the number will be "based on the combined Cuban/Haitian arrivals in FY 2013 and FY 2014," the letter said. That's largely before the sharp uptick in Cuban arrivals began.

"That doesn't do me any good," said Book, of the Homeless Trust. "We need to deal with reality of today's numbers."

Cubans trapped on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

The situation has been anticipated for some time now. Last July, as the increase in Cuban refugees into the region was becoming apparent, refugee centers in South Florida became overburdened. Some new arrivals were left to sleep on the streets while awaiting services.

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"What we're seeing is just a backlog of what we already anticipated, because Nicaragua decided to seal its border," Michael Hernandez, director of communications at the office of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, told Fusion. He said federal authorities have given the county assurances that the situation is under control.

The county has not yet requested additional federal funding to help handle the migrants, he said, but noted that a forthcoming letter from the Mayor to federal officials will keep that option on the table.

"The mayor will be finalizing a document any second, just reminding the federal government that 'we rely on you,' and should funds be necessary, we obviously will be requesting them," said Hernandez.

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One thing that he is sure of is that the expected arrivals will not be a repeat of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 Cuban refugees arrived in the U.S., with most settling in the Miami-area. "That was a different time," Hernandez said.

“I just don’t feel that we need to panic at this time. We need to plan,” Oscar Rivera, director of the Church World Service of Miami, a humanitarian refugee assistance group, recently told the Miami Herald. The group is coordinating with federal funding authorities as much as possible, he said.

In an email, Oasis Pena, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Mission of Miami, another refugee processing service, said that her organization will continue to help new arrivals to the best of its ability, with the money it has available. But, she then added a qualifier.

"As far as federal funding," she said, "we haven’t heard anything."

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.