Florida Keys

After 39 days at sea, lighthouse Cubans have wet feet, judge rules

Group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in standoff with Coast Guard on Friday, May 20, 2016.
Group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in standoff with Coast Guard on Friday, May 20, 2016. Photos courtesy WSVN.

After more than five weeks bobbing offshore in a Coast Guard cutter, 21 Cuban migrants are headed back to Cuban soil.

Federal Judge Darrin Gayles ruled Tuesday that the United States’ “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy does not extend to the American Shoal lighthouse six and a half nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key. The 21 migrants, two of which are women, fled Cuba and landed on the lighthouse, sparking an eight-hour standoff with the Coast Guard crews while they refused to climb off the 109-foot tall structure.

Once they climbed off the lighthouse and into the Coast Guard boats, the U.S. government said the structure didn’t count as American soil and tried to send the migrants back to Cuba.

Pro-bono lawyers for the nonprofit Movimiento Democracia, or Democracy Movement, filed an injunction to the repatriation order four days later, leaving the migrants in Coast Guard limbo until Judge Gayles ruled.

Gayles, in a 35-page order, ruled that the migrants who arrived at American Shoal Light May 20, were not denied constitutional rights. 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.

“The Court neither approves nor disapproves the Executive Branch’s decision that the Cuban migrants in this case do not qualify for refugee processing as dry foot arrivals to the United States,” Gayles wrote. “Developments and revisions of immigration and foreign policy are left to the political branches of the government.”

William Calderon, one of the several lawyers representing the migrants pro bono for Democracy Movement, said he is not sure whether the group will appeal Gayles’ decision.

The makeshift vessel left Cuba with 23 migrants aboard. All of them jumped off and swam to the lighthouse when a Coast Guard crew approached. Two were snagged by the Coast Guard, but the rest made it to the lighthouse. Three migrants continued to hide for an extra day after the first 18 surrendered to the Coast Guard.

Democracy Movement’s injunction was based in part on a case it successfully argued on behalf of 15 migrants who landed on a piling of the old Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon in 2006. Homeland Security determined the old span, next to the functioning bridge, is no longer connected to dry land because it has sections missing and ordered the Cubans to go home.

But a federal judge later that year determined the historic bridge is still part of the United States and dry land, and several of the repatriated migrants have since returned to the states.