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Posted January 09, 2006 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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Associated Press

January 9, 2006, 4:20 PM EST

MIAMI—Fifteen Cubans who fled their homeland and landed on an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys were returned to Cuba Monday after U.S. officials concluded that the piling did not constitute dry land, authorities said.

Under the U.S. government’s ``wet-foot, dry-foot’’ policy, Cubans who reach dry land in the United States are usually allowed to remain in the country, while those caught at sea are sent back.

Earlier Monday, officials said the Cubans were aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, as they awaited a final decision as to their status.

The historic Old Seven Mile Bridge, which runs side by side with a newer bridge, is missing several chunks, and the Cubans had the misfortune of reaching pilings from a section that no longer touches land.

The federal government said that means the group never actually reached U.S. territory and could be sent home.

``The `bridge’ is kind of a misnomer,’’ said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Chris O’Neil, spokesman for the department’s Southeast region. He 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.

Veteran immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who is not involved in the case, called the Coast Guard’s decision 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.

An attorney representing relatives of the Cubans had planned to file an emergency request Monday to prevent them from being sent back when he learned they were repatriated. William Sanchez was going to ask the government to review the question of whether the bridge constitutes dry land.

Sanchez said later Monday he would file a separate lawsuit to seek the return of the 15 Cubans.

``We believe the law was misapplied because they entered U.S. territorial waters and more importantly, they touched a piece of bridge that was clearly under the United States’ control,’’ Sanchez said. ``If a federal court judge indicates they weren’t properly repatriated, there is case law that they could be returned to the United States.’‘

The Cubans, including, a 2-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy, left Matanzas Province in Cuba late on the night of Jan. 2 aboard a small, homemade boat. They were rescued by the Coast Guard from the base of the bridge just south of Marathon Key.

Mercedes Hernandez Guerrero said her niece Elizabeth Hernandez, who came on the boat with her husband Junior Blanco and their 2-year-old son John Michael, called her on a cell phone Wednesday morning from the abandoned bridge.

``She said ‘Aunt, we are on a piling, and the boat is sinking,’’ Hernandez recalled. ``I said stay there. The currents are strong. I thought I was giving them good advice.’‘

Hernandez said she quickly called her family in Cuba to tell them but became worried as the days passed and she heard nothing more from her niece.

The group was returned along with 52 other Cubans whose vessels had been picked up off the Florida coast.

At least a dozen Cuban-Americans protested the decision Monday outside the Coast Guard headquarters in Miami Beach. Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, a Cuban-American advocacy group, said he began a hunger strike on Saturday to protest the federal government’s treatment of the group.

``They are trying to go as far as they can ... to take away the immigrants’ rights,’’ he said. He later added, ``Apart from being illegal, (the repatriation is) a disgrace and a great insensitivity to a community that for three days has been asking that they not be repatriated.’‘

Sanchez said he is also concerned about the Coast Guard’s failure to allow those picked up at sea to contact their families while they are being held on the agency’s boats.

``Families can wait days without information,’’ he said. ``People on both sides of the ocean think their family members have died.’‘

He 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.’‘

The Coast Guard announced that the 15 bridge Cubans were among 67 returned to their homeland later Monday. The group included 14 migrants intercepted four miles south of Boot Key on Jan. 1; 10 migrants were interdicted 30 miles south of Marquesas on Jan. 2; 12 migrants who were interdicted 25 miles south of Dry Tortugas on Jan. 4; and 12 migrants located 30 miles southwest of Cabo San Antonio, Cuba, by the research vessel Joides Resolution.
Copyright 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

  1. Follow up post #1 added on January 10, 2006 by ROLO

    That is ludicrous,the old seven miles bridge belong to the
    American soil,they,indeed reached that point,so they have all
    the right on account to the also ridiculous foot-drye-foot-wet
    Circular to remain in the States,It seems to me America has an
    obvious and rampant problem,the low enforcement is struck down.
    The administration just see the cubans exiles in electoral season.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on January 10, 2006 by DeeDee

    Does anyone know what city William Sanchez is out of?  I would like to contact and lend some support if I can.

    This is ridiculous!

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