Congressmen Blast Feds for Sending Migrants Back to Cuba

Florida Republican Congressmen Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff criticizing the U.S. Coast Guard for sending 15 Cuban migrants back to Cuba on Monday even though they had physically reached the Florida Keys after leaving the communist run island.

”These Cubans did in fact reach land by reaching the Seven Mile Bridge,” said the letter. "Accordingly, the apprehension of the Cuban refugees by the Coast Guard is uncalled for, inflammatory, and violates U.S. policy and precedent. We respectfully urge you to immediately parole these Cuban refugees into the United States.”

The 15 migrants, including women and children, were found on an old bridge called the “Seven Mile Bridge”, south of Marathon Key in the Florida Keys. But Washington officials decided that the bridge was not connected to land so the U.S. Coast Guard decided to send the Cubans back.

Coast Guard officials said the migrants were sent back to Cuba on a Coast Guard cutter on Monday.

"The particular structure that they were found upon is not connected to land. The ‘bridge’ is kind of a misnomer," Coast Guard Lt. Commander Chris O’Neil, spokesman for the department’s Southeast region told Miami’s WPLG-TV.

O’Neil said officials in Washington determined the Cubans should be considered "feet wet," because they were not able to walk to land from where they landed.

The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1965 allows Cuban migrants that reach land to remain in America. But those at sea are returned to Cuba. The policy has been the subject of controversy between Washington and Havana for many years.

Wire service reports said the 15 repatriated Cubans were discovered last Thursday on the old bridge but since that bridge is no longer used, the section of the bridge they landed on was not connected to land because sections on either side are missing.

”The old Flagler Bridge is unused and this segment is not connected to land,” the Coast Guard said in a statement. “Through a legal review, the migrants were determined to be feet-wet and processed in accordance with standard procedure.”

Meanwhile, Miami’s WPLG-TV reported that a Cuban advocacy group angry over the U.S. Coast Guard’s interpretation of the controversial "wet foot, dry foot" policy gathered off the McArthur Causeway, a major Miami traffic artery to protest the feds action.

A Cuban exile group called the “Democracy Movement” asked that the 15 refugees be allowed to stay. Its leader, Ramon Saul Sanchez, went on a hunger strike in front of the Coast Guard station in Miami on behalf of the Cubans.

WPLG-TV said Sanchez, along with about 35 others from the group, has made his cause visible to the public, displaying signs that read, "Hunger strike for freedom. Mr. President, respectfully, immigrants have rights too," and refusing food and water from those concerned by his actions.

But the part of the old bridge piling that the Cubans touched is no longer connected to land — a gray area in the law that Sanchez and his supporters believe is unfair.

"We recognize that the old Key West bridge is part of the United States, as much as the Statue of Liberty, and (that the government should) allow the Cubans that were found there, as the law says, to remain in freedom in the United States," Sanchez said.

Sanchez also said his hunger strike will not end until President Bush agrees to hear from leaders of the Cuban exile community about what he called "the arbitrary manner in which the wet-foot, dry-foot policy is being implemented."

Veteran immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who is not involved in the case, told the Associated Press that he thought the Coast Guard decision was “ridiculous.”

"The wet-foot, dry-foot policy has no foundation in law," he said. Kurzban said the policy is inconsistent with U.S. and international law, noting that the federal government’s jurisdiction extends beyond dry land to waters as far out as 100 miles.

"International law says that refugees should be granted a hearing before they are forcibly returned," he said.