After 19 Cuban migrants climbed down from American Shoal Light off the Lower Keys after an hours-long standoff with the U.S. Coast Guard on May 20, three more hid within the confines of the 109-foot-tall structure and weren’t found until the next day, according to court documents filed Wednesday.
Two of the men were spotted by a civilian boater on May 21. That boater called the Coast Guard. The responding crew picked the men up, and the migrants told crewmembers they hid in the keeper’s quarters of the 19th Century lighthouse after the other 19 Cubans chose to surrender around 5 p.m. the day they climbed the lighthouse.
The Coast Guard received another call May 21 that a man was clinging to a wooden board about four nautical miles away from American Shoal Light, which stands anchored in the coral reef about seven nautical miles south of Sugarloaf Key in about four feet of water.
He was recovered and told the Coast Guard he, too, hid in the lighthouse while the other migrants gave up the standoff. After crews with the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission left, he jumped in the water and drifted away from the lighthouse.
The details about the three additional migrants are included in documents filed in U.S. District Court on June 1. A nonprofit legal group, Movimiento Democracia, filed an injunction against the Department of Homeland Security on May 24 arguing the 22 men and two women should be allowed to stay in the United States under the 1995 changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a policy dubbed wet-foot, dry-foot.
It states Cuban migrants stopped at sea will be returned to their homeland. But those who make it to shore can stay in the U.S. and apply for permanent residency after a year.
Until the release of the court documents, the Coast Guard acknowledged 21 migrants were involved in the May 20 incident — two who jumped off the group's homemade vessel into the water immediately after being confronted by a Coast Guard crew that morning and were captured, and the 19 others who managed to swim away and climb the lighthouse.
The Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security say the lighthouse is U.S. property, but not U.S. territory, and therefore the Cubans should be repatriated.
An evidentiary hearing is scheduled on the injunction in a Miami federal courtroom at 2 p.m. Thursday.