A federal judge is expected to rule Tuesday whether a group of 21 Cuban migrants floating on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter somewhere out at sea will be allowed to stay in the United States.
The group, which includes two women, has been on the ship ever since a day-long standoff on the American Shoal lighthouse 6.5 nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key ended on May 20. For about eight hours that day, the migrants refused to come down off the 109-foot-tall, 19th century-built structure as Coast Guard crews waited them out.
Their lawyers, working on the case pro bono with the nonprofit Movimiento Democracia, or Democracy Movement, argue the lighthouse, which is anchored to the coral reef in about four feet of water, counts as dry land under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy.
The policy is part of changes made in 1995 to the Cuban Adjustment Act. It stipulates that Cubans caught migrating to the U.S. at sea will be sent back. Those who touch down on dry land can stay and apply for permanent residency after a year.
The U.S. government determined immediately that the lighthouse does not constitute dry land and ordered the migrants repatriated. But Democracy Movement lawyers filed an injunction in U.S. District Court on May 24. Federal Judge Darrin Gayles is expected to make a decision Tuesday.
There were at least 23 migrants in the original group. Twenty-one swam off their makeshift vessel and climbed onto the lighthouse after being confronted by a U.S. Coast Guard crew. Two were immediately caught after jumping into the water.
Three men in the group hid inside the lighthouse after the others surrendered and weren’t found until the next day.
Cubans are fleeing their communist homeland in ever-increasing numbers because they fear wet-foot, dry-foot could soon end and so too their automatic refugee status. The Obama administration reestablished diplomatic ties with the Castro regime in 2015. The thawing relationship arguably undermines the logic of categorizing the island nation’s migrants as refugees.
Since Oct. 1, the Coast Guard 7th District estimates at least 4,406 Cubans have attempted to migrate to the U.S. by sea, compared to 4,473 in fiscal year 2015. These statistics represent the total number of at-sea interdictions and landings.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204