By Terri Hallenbeck | BurlingtonFreePress.com
Jared Carter stepped to the lectern and made his courtroom debut Wednesday in federal court in Burlington. The second-year law school student has taken on a case that’s personal: Should he and his wife be able to travel to Cuba to see her family and celebrate their marriage?
The Constitution provides a fundamental right to associate with family, Carter told U.S. District Judge William Sessions III. Federal rules that restrict travel to Cuba undermine that right, Carter argued.
John O’Quinn, deputy assistant U.S. attorney general, defended the restrictions. He argued that government has the constitutional right to restrict travel to other countries and the Cuban policy is designed to prevent money from flowing to the Communist Castro regime, which the United States does not support.
After a more-than-two-hour hearing, Sessions neither dismissed the case nor granted the preliminary injunction that Carter and the other plaintiffs were seeking. Instead, the judge asked both sides for more information about why the government offers certain emergency travel exemptions but not others.
Armando Vilaseca, another plaintiff in the case, said afterward he was encouraged by the hearing. “I’m very happy it wasn’t dismissed,” he said. “I can understand why Judge Sessions clearly needs more time and information.”
Carter and his wife, Yurisleidis Levya Mora, joined Vilaseca and Maricel Keniston in challenging federal restrictions on travel to Cuba. Because of its potential impact on decades-long strained relations with Cuba, the case is attracting national attention, including input from the American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Vermont, Florida and Massachusetts.
James Messinger, a lawyer for the ACLU, questioned the 2004 policy that set the Cuban travel restrictions. A government report found no evidence that the travel restrictions had any impact on the flow of money to the Cuban government, he said.
Carter met his wife while he was visiting Cuba. They settled in Vermont where he attends Vermont Law School and married in December. They want to travel to Cuba to celebrate their marriage with her relatives, including grandparents who are in their 70s, he said. Federal rules permit travel to visit immediate family in Cuba only once every three years.
Vilaseca sought the right to visit his aunt, who was terminally ill when the lawsuit was filed in March. She died in April.
“I still hoped to see her one more time,” said Vilaseca, of Westford, superintendent of schools at Franklin West Supervisory Union in Fairfax who moved from Cuba to the United States as a child.
Vilaseca said he thinks the travel restrictions should be changed for other Americans with family members in Cuba. “My story is one of thousands of stories. Something as simple as going to a wedding should not be so difficult,” he said after the court hearing.
Mark Schneider, a Plattsburgh, N.Y., attorney who joined Carter in arguing the case, told Sessions that time is of the essence in seeking a preliminary injunction that would allow the plaintiffs to travel pending a broader decision on the restrictions.
Sessions bluntly told him a speedy resolution was unlikely, particularly given that a decision would likely be appealed. “This is not something that’s going to be expediently resolved,” he said.
There is an exemption that allows U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba in case of an emergency to visit an immediate family member who is also a U.S. citizen and is traveling there, but there are no similar exemptions for U.S. citizens to respond to travel for emergencies facing Cuban relatives. Sessions focused on that discrepancy.
“Is that rational?” he asked O’Quinn.
Sessions gave the lawyers 30 days to provide more information on that question.