Posted on Mon, Jan. 09, 2006
A group of Cuban migrants who reached a piling of the old Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon await word on whether their landing site qualifies them for admittance into the country—or repatriation.
BY ROBERT L. STEINBACK
For 15 refugees who completed the treacherous crossing from Cuba to the Florida Keys Thursday, the difference between freedom and being returned to their homeland may come down to having landed on the wrong bridge piling.
The group remained aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sunday awaiting word on whether they will be admitted to the United States under the government’s increasingly controversial ‘‘wet foot/dry foot’’ policy. Under the policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil generally get to stay, while those intercepted at sea are generally repatriated.
By a curious twist of fate, the 15 migrants reached the bridge—which is part of the United States—but the section of the bridge they touched is no longer connected to land. As a result, U.S. authorities have for now concluded that the migrants may not be covered by the policy’s dry-foot component.
‘‘The way the policy has been written and what we enforce is if you’re on any artificial structure and can’t physically walk to land, you’re `feet-wet,’’ Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 1st Class Dana Warr said Sunday. ‘A bridge connected to land is `feet-dry.’ That particular bridge is broken in places.’‘
The Coast Guard rescued the 15 from a piling holding up a section of the old Seven Mile Bridge just south of Marathon Thursday morning. But the old bridge, which once connected Key Vaca and Pigeon Key with Little Duck Key, now has sections missing—and the section on which the migrants landed isn’t attached to land on either side, Warr said.
The distinction doesn’t sit well with migrant advocates and relatives of the rafters, about 35 of whom gathered Sunday to protest near the U.S. Coast Guard Station on the McArthur Causeway in Miami Beach.
‘‘We are asking the government not to [repatriate the migrants] because the bridge is a part of the United States,’’ said Ramon Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, an organization which advocates the interests of Cuban migrants. ``If the bridge is not part of the United States, then the Statue of Liberty isn’t, either.’‘
The migrants, which included four women and two children, left Matanzas Province in Cuba late Monday or early Tuesday aboard a homemade raft, said Miguel Angel Guerrero of Hialeah. His cousin, Elizabeth Hernández, 23, her husband and 2 ½-year-old son Michael are among the migrants, Guerrero said.
Aware of when the group left Cuba, Guerrero said anxious family members in South Florida were surprised to get a short, 90-second telephone call Thursday—from the migrants themselves.
‘‘They called at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, saying they had a couple of problems coming over, and when they got here, the boat was sinking,’’ said Guerrero, 20, who arrived by raft from Cuba 14 years ago. ``That’s why they didn’t get all the way to shore. They only made it to the base of the old bridge, south of Pigeon Key.’‘
Guerrero said the call, placed from a private number, ended before family members could determine how the migrants managed to place it. The Coast Guard rescued the group some time later, and family members have had no contact with them since, Guerrero said.
Local advocates are fighting for the group on a number of fronts. Sánchez has started a one-man hunger strike, directed not at the Coast Guard, but at policymakers in Washington in a bid to persuade them to reconsider the ‘‘wet foot/dry foot’’ policy.
The hunger strike ‘‘will not end until they are released or I am dead,’’ Sánchez said.
Also, attorney William Sánchez said he will go to court today in an effort to stop the group’s repatriation.
‘‘This is an artificial structure that was previously a bridge, and [the Coast Guard] clearly indicates in its documentation that bridges and piers are considered U.S. territory,’’ Sánchez said. ``It’s our argument that it was once a bridge, and should now be considered a pier.’‘