The incident first unfolded near Cay Sal Bank in the Bahamas during one evening in November, long before President Barack Obama revoked the longstanding wet foot, dry foot policy.
But it wasn't until last month that authorities arrested and charged a Miami Cuban of illegally transporting 21 Cubans who had no visa to enter the United States, according to Miami federal court records.
Rafael López Morales now awaits a possible trial on migrant smuggling charges, approximately two months after Obama ended the migration policy that allowed Cuban immigrants without a visa to stay in the country legally and then apply for permanent residence if they reached dry U.S. land.
Thus, the case against López Morales serves as a kind of symbolic epilogue to the era that ended abruptly on Jan. 12, when Obama revoked the practice some eight days before Donald Trump took office.
The case began Nov. 26, when a U.S. Coast Guard plane patrolling the area spotted a vessel near Cay Sal Bank, located due south of Marathon in the Florida Keys.
“[The vessel] was heading on a northerly course towards the United States and was suspiciously covered with a tarp,” according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The patrol plane alerted the Coast Guard cutter Raymond Evans, which was nearby, and its crew maneuvered to intercept the suspicious boat in the Bahamas’ territorial waters, according to the HSI criminal complaint.
Later, the Raymond Evans' crew dispatched a small boat with a boarding team to inspect the suspicious vessel closely.
“Twenty-two (22) persons were discovered on board the suspect vessel,” according to the criminal complaint. “One of the men on deck, later identified as López Morales, was observed by USCG officers operating the vessel.”
[The vessel] was heading on a northerly course towards the United States and was suspiciously covered with a tarp.
According to the complaint, the 22 men were transported to the Coast Guard cutter where crew members determined that they were all Cubans, and that 21 of them had no visa or authorization to enter the United States.
The complaint does not say what happened to the 21 Cubans, but indicates that they were likely repatriated to Cuba because only López Morales was brought ashore and taken to the Border Patrol station at Dania Beach.
The 21 Cubans were considered then as being “wet foot” because they did not touch dry American territory. Under the policy that was revoked on Jan. 12, Cuban immigrants without a visa arriving on U.S. territory could stay, but those intercepted at sea were generally returned to Cuba.
After being arrested, López Morales told investigators that he knew it was illegal to bring the 21 Cubans without a visa, but wanted to help them reach the United States, according to the complaint.
An HSI spokesman said he could not comment on the case because it is still ongoing in court, and the defendant's lawyer could not be reached for comment because his or her name was not listed on the court docket.
Follow Alfonso Chardy en Twitter: @AlfonsoChardy