A Cuban couple who survived a migrant-smuggling trip to the United States are allowed to stay but have little to celebrate as they prepare for the funeral of their son, who died en route.
BY JENNIFER BABSON
KEY WEST - It was a symphony of pure grief - no words, just sobs and sharp wails and the heaving despair of mothers and aunts, cousins and fathers.
Twenty-seven miles away, the tiny boy in whose name they cried lay still in a body bag at the Monroe County medical examiner’s office.
As his extended Cuban family reunited outside a government office at Key West International Airport, two federal agents, both Cuban Americans, bowed their heads, flinching back their own tears. It was 3:01 am Saturday and the world seemed too cruel.
Julian Villasuso, 49, and Maizy Hurtado, 32, had escaped Cuba. But their only son, 6-year-old Juli, didn’t make it.
‘‘This is the cost, this is what I have to pay,’’ sobbed the boy’s father, begging forgiveness for a voyage that cost him his child.
The only thing between Julian’s tired feet and the U.S. soil he had risked too much to reach was a pair of blue and white government-issue flip-flops.
Villasuso and Hurtado were brought into the United States late Friday, nearly 48 hours after a botched migrant smuggling run in the Florida Straits claimed their son.
The heated debate over their future wound its way to Washington, where federal government officials weighed whether to make an exception to routine immigration procedures and allow them into the country.
Twenty-five other Cubans who also survived Thursday’s capsizing—and two men suspected of manning the Florida-registered speedboat—remained aboard a Coast Guard cutter off Key West Saturday as federal investigators sorted through evidence and interviewed witnesses. One other passenger also was brought into the Keys Friday after showing signs of appendicitis.
Federal prosecutors have not disclosed whether they intend to charge the men. It is also unclear whether the other survivors—who could be material witnesses—will be sent back to Cuba or brought to Florida.
Under the U.S. wet-foot/dry-foot immigration policy, Cubans who reach the United States, even illegally, are allowed to remain, while those stopped at sea are usually returned.
Late Thursday, Juli’s body arrived in the United States accompanied by a Catholic priest.
His parents were brought to Key West Friday after immigration authorities deemed it was in ‘‘substantial public interest,’’ according to Zachary Mann, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
For relatives, who had driven through the night from Miami-Dade and Broward counties to meet them at a federal processing center, there would be no joy.
Within days, a child would be laid to rest in a land he never came to know.
His mother, a baker whose elaborate cakes and pastries marked weddings and celebrations in a small village outside of Guanabo, Cuba, clutched the arms of family she hadn’t glimpsed in years to keep from collapsing.
‘‘My baby, oh, my baby,’’ she wailed. In the hours after Juli was found by rescuers beneath the hulk of the overturned speedboat, his tiny lungs crammed with saltwater, a mother had demanded to view her lifeless son aboard a Coast Guard cutter.
Coast Guard officers consumed by their own sadness complied. But their commander had to dispatch counselors to comfort his own as a priest led passengers in prayer and consoled parents whose aspirations had vanished in an instant.
Investigators reviewing a videotape of the incident noted that one of the suspected smugglers, clad in a black shirt intended as dark camouflage, peeled it off in the moments before the boat capsized to try to blend in with his bare-chested male cargo.
Several sources also said that authorities had stopped the same alleged smuggling boat off the Keys in the past.
In addition to two men believed to have captained the boat Thursday, investigators have several other men in custody who were caught on separate suspected smuggling runs the same night and who may be connected to this case.
Such details were far from the minds of Juli’s parents Saturday. When they first stepped onto U.S. soil at a Coast Guard base in Key West there were no big smiles, no tears of relief. Villasuso and Hurtado just wept.
Hours later, they were gently escorted into an SUV for a long drive that would take them farther from Cuba, and from their child, toward the Hollywood home of Julian’s sister, Mari.
A cousin already had purchased clothing for Juli—not for his new school but for his funeral. He will wear khaki pants, a blue-striped shirt, and a black belt. An undershirt will keep him warm, a stuffed yellow dog will keep him company, and a white rosary will keep his faith.
Mari’s husband, Alex Gort, girded himself for a burial he would attend for a life too young to mourn.
‘‘It’s about a family here, and a family there,’’ Gort said. ``Everybody’s hurt.’‘