Twenty Cubans who fought a months-long legal battle to stay in the United States after a brief standoff on a Lower Keys lighthouse in May 2016 have been granted asylum in Australia.
They had been staying at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay until about two weeks ago, said Ramon Saul Sanchez, founder of the nonprofit Movimiento Democracia, or Democracy Movement. Lawyers for the group represented the migrants pro bono ever since they and four others came down from the American Shoal lighthouse about 6.5 miles off Sugarloaf Key on May 20, 2016.
They climbed the structure after their vessel was confronted by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol.
Democracy Movement attorneys argued the American Shoal Lighthouse constitutes dry land under the now-defunct wet-foot, dry-foot policy added in 1995 to the Cuban Adjustment Act. The policy stated Cuban migrants caught at sea trying to come to the United States must be sent back to their homeland. Those who reached land, however, could stay and apply for permanent residency a year after their arrival. The policy was scrapped by the Obama administration in its waning days.
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U.S. District Court Judge Darrin Gayles denied an emergency injunction petition from Democracy Movement filed May 24, 2016, to let them stay in the United States. Democracy Movement attorneys then filed a motion arguing the Cubans had a right to counsel under the Administrative Procedures Act. Gayles, in a 35-page order issued June of that year, ruled that the migrants were not denied constitutional rights to which they are entitled. He did not weigh in on whether the Cubans reached dry land, but rather stated the Coast Guard and U.S. Homeland Security were not wrong in determining the migrants were interdicted at sea.
Four members of the group were sent back to Cuba.
While the case played out in court, the rest of the migrants were kept aboard a Coast Guard cutter. While on the ship, one of the men threw a bottle overboard containing a message stating that they would face political persecution should they be forced to return to their communist homeland. A fisherman found the message and gave it to Coast Guard officials.
They were sent to Guantanamo Bay while the claims of persecution were being investigated, and were there until earlier this month.
It’s not clear what sort of agreement was made between U.S. and Australian officials regarding the migrants. The U.S. State Department would not comment.
“We have no comment on Australia’s refugee resettlement policies,” reads an emailed statement attributed to “a U.S. official.”
An official who asked only to be referred to as a “spokesperson” with Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection said that while it “is not appropriate to comment further on individual cases,” Australia and the United states “have a long history of cooperation on mutual and respective humanitarian objectives.” The official said Australia’s record of working with the United States on resettling Cubans goes back to 1981.
Regarding the recently-arrived Cubans, the spokesperson said: “These refugees were assessed by the Australian government and met the criteria for refugee and humanitarian visas, including rigorous health, character and security checks.”
Sanchez said the decision was made at the government level, but that Democracy Movement attorneys had requested that the State Department “find a third country instead of repatriation.”
Sanchez said in a statement regarding the latest development: “I am very grateful to the team of Democracia civil rights attorneys who defended them pro-bono, to the U.S. government for having kept its commitment, first to keep them at Gitmo, and then for looking for a third country to take them, and to the government of Australia for its generous gesture of giving them the opportunity to live in freedom.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204
This article was originally published on flkeysnews.com.