Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Cubans

Miami-based U.S. District Judge Judge Federico Moreno ruled earlier this week that the federal government should not have ordered 15 Cubans back to Cuba after they landed at an abandoned Florida Keys bridge with hopes of gaining freedom in the United States.

Kendall Coffey, the attorney for the Cubans and their relatives told Associated Press that Moreno ordered the government to make its "best effort" to help the immigrants leave Cuba and return to 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. Had they landed a 100 yards away on the new bridge, the U.S. Coast Guard would likely have allowed them to stay.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1965, those Cubans who reached American shores are allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are returned to Cuba.

The federal government argued that the old bridge did not count as dry land because chunks of it are missing, and it is no longer connected to U.S. soil.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, a Cuban-American advocacy group that also joined in the lawsuit against the government, was pleased with the judge’s ruling.

"Really, it is a vindication for all immigrants," Sanchez told the Associated Press. Sanchez did an 11-day hunger strike to protest the group’s return to Cuba.

Wire service reports said it was not clear whether Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro would allow the 15 to return to America.

"Right now they’re stigmatized as undesirables and told they’re not wanted in Cuba," Coffey told the Associated Press. "They’re very much wanted here, and we hope they’ll be allowed to return and are counting on the U.S to use its best efforts to help them get back where they belong."

Last January, Florida Republican Representatives 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 those 15 Cuban migrants back to Cuba 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 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.

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.