The 19 Cuban migrants straddled atop the American Shoal lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key have come down and are being processed by immigration officials, Coast Guard officials said Friday afternoon.
The migrants climbed down from the 109-foot structure around 5:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, the migrants had swum to the lighthouse after the Coast Guard approached their makeshift boat in the waters off Sugarloaf.
The Coast Guard confronted the boaters early Friday morning after receiving an 8 a.m. telephone call from a boater who had noticed the migrants in their vessel, said Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard 7th District.
As the Coast Guard approached the boat, 19 migrants jumped off and swam to the lighthouse, which was built in 1880 and sits about five miles off shore from Sugarloaf. They climbed the lighthouse’s metal stilts. Meanwhile, two other migrants swam to the Coast Guard cutter.
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Officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were in the process of screening the 21 migrants on a Coast Guard cutter Friday evening to determine whether they will remain in the United States or be returned to Cuba.
“Typically, migrants taken at sea are returned to their country of origin,’’ Doss said. “But there are special circumstances — like fear of persecution” that come into play.
It’s not clear if the lighthouse would be considered land under the U.S. immigration policy of wet-foot, dry-foot. The policy, stipulated under 1995 changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act, allows Cubans who step foot on U.S. soil to stay here and apply for permanent residency after a year. The lighthouse sits in the water.
David Goodhue is editor of The Reporter in the Keys.