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Coalition That Freed Thousands of Cuban Refugees Disbanding

June 26, 1991

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) _ The loudest advocates for the rights of thousands of imprisoned Cuban refugees are closing up shop after a task they thought would be over within a year stretched to six.

″I remember thinking in the beginning we could work this out in six months,″ said Carla Dudeck, coordinator of the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees, which is shutting its office in this Atlanta suburb at the end of the month.

The coalition was formed in 1985 as an advocacy group for the Cuban refugees who remained in U.S. prisons for years after their arrival in the Mariel boat lift of 1980.

Six years later, the organization is out of money and the hearings it won for 3,800 refugees - including 2,900 who were subsequently freed - are almost over. Only two hearings remain, both scheduled for Monday.

But with more than 2,000 Cubans still in prison, the three coalition staffers, who are the organization’s backbone, said they will continue to work individually on behalf of the refugees.

″It doesn’t mean we’re going to totally disappear,″ said attorney Gary Leshaw. ″But we’re not going to be able to deal with the day-to-day cases like we used to.″

The group, a shoestring operation whose private funding never got above $60,000 a year, won the respect of its chief adversary, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said INS spokesman Duke Austin in Washington.

″We didn’t always agree with their premise, but I think they served their purpose,″ he said. ″They have been successful in getting us to stay alert.″

The group became the chief advocate for the thousands of Cuban refugees who were never freed, either because of alleged criminal backgrounds or mental illness.

After riots among Cuban inmates at federal prisons in Atlanta and Oakdale, La., in 1987, INS and U.S. Justice Department officials agreed to new rounds of hearings for the refugees. The coalition then found itself in a quasi- representative role, helping 3,800 inmates through the hearing process.

Of the 120,000 Cubans who came to the United States in 1980, most have been freed. Several hundred others have been sent back to Cuba, and about 2,600 remain in prison indefinitely.

Leshaw said he and his colleagues will continue to help Cubans who have been approved for release but can’t find space in halfway houses. They’ll also lobby for treatment for the mentally ill.

They’ll also get on with their lives.

Leshaw, who helped negotiate a settlement to the Atlanta prison riots, will return to work as a Legal Aid attorney. Dudeck plans to become a full-time law student. Sally Sandidge is looking for work.

″I haven’t dealt with it well,″ Dudeck said. ″It’s not neatly ended. But for a long time, I haven’t felt like I’ve been doing anybody any good. ... Usually, you’re just telling them, ’You’re screwed.‴

Perhaps coalition staffers can be more effective on their own now, Sandidge said.

″We plan to raise hell,″ she said. ″Maybe we got co-opted by the government, working in all these cases. Now, I want to go picket the INS. Somebody has to do it.″

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