sun-sentinel.com & news partner NBC6 & Associated Press
TAVERNIER—The last migrant who was trying to swim to freedom on U.S. soil gave up to the Coast Guard near noon on Thursday and was taken into custody aboard one of their boats.
Just minutes before another Cuban man had given up trying to swim to safety in the Florida Keys around 11:35 a.m. and was quickly pulled aboard a boat after about two hours in the water swimming or treading water and dodging capture.
Four other Cuban migrants were already in custody about two miles off Tavernier.
Meanwhile, two of three Cuban migrants who swam ashore on live television earlier this month were charged Thursday in Key West with assaulting Coast Guard members who were trying to rescue them.
The six migrants who attempted to reach the United States on Thursday were taken aboard a Coast Guard boat off Tavernier, about 75 miles south of Miami, Petty Officer Anastasia Burns said. They were being transferred to a larger cutter, she said.
After receiving medical treatment, the migrants will be questioned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent involved in the rescue to decide whether to send them back to Cuba or bring them ashore, Border Patrol spokesman Keith Roberts said.
Under the “wet foot, dry foot’’ policy, Cubans who reach U.S. shores are generally permitted to stay, while those caught at sea are taken back.
Thursday’s incident was covered by most TV stations in the Miami area.
News partner NBC6 initially reported that officials found the six migrants around 8:45 a.m.Thursday in a broken down motorboat two- to three-miles off Tavernier near Mosquito Bank and French reef. Officials said the migrants had been at sea from their homeland at least seven days.
The first rescue vessel reached the migrants around 9:20 a.m. and found three or four migrants trying to swim to shore and two others in the broken motorboat.
As the incident began Thursday morning, two migrants were quickly taken into custody on two different Coast Guard boats. Off of each boat was a man trying to swim to shore or treading water. Both refused to board the Coast Guard vessels or accept life jackets or safety lines. The two men had been in the water about two hours when the first gave up.
This drama comes about a week after three men used the same strategy and made it to shore at Ocean Reef near Key Largo in the Upper Keys after three hours of swimming and treading water and avoiding capture by the Coast Guard.
Under American law, Cuban migrants are subject to a wet foot, dry foot rule. Usually, Cubans who reach land are allowed to stay in the United States, while those caught at sea are returned to the communist nation.
Two of the Cubans after swimming ashore near Key Largo on May 6 appeared Thursday before a federal magistrate judge in Key West.
Javier Morales Molina, 27, and Reinaldo Molina Morales, 29, both of Remedios, Cuba, are charged with threatening Coast Guard members with a knife and part of their boat’s mast. They each face possible 20-year prison sentences.
Bond was set for each of the men at $70,000, but immigration officials must decide whether they can be released pending trial.
“The issue isn’t the policy or the wet-foot-dry foot issue. It’s really what these two did. They used weapons and they were interfering with the (Coast Guard) officers out there protecting our borders,’’ said Matt Dates, spokesman for U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami.
But one of the migrants’ attorneys, Ed Farres, said there was no evidence that his clients did so.
“Obviously it was somewhat of a hectic situation,’’ Farres said. “We believe that any actions that these guys may have taken were misinterpreted by Coast Guard officials.’‘
The third man, Alfredo Morales Molina, 29, was not charged and is en route to Krome Detention Center in west Miami-Dade County for processing, officials said. Most Cubans are released a few days after reaching Krome. He and Javier Morales Molina are brothers.
A fourth man, who became tired in the water and climbed onto a government boat, is still being detained on a Coast Guard cutter, officials said. No decision has been made on whether to return him to Cuba or bring him to Florida, officials said.