Florida Keys

20 Cuban migrants who clung to lighthouse to be sent to Guantánamo naval station

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. Courtesy WSVN

Twenty of the 24 Cuban migrants who sought refuge on a lower Florida Keys lighthouse in May are going to be sent to the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for further evaluation because they have “credible fears of persecution,” according to federal court documents.

The four other migrants who arrived at the American Shoal Lighthouse, 6.5 nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key, are being sent back to Cuba, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter A. Lee wrote in a notice filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

The fears of persecution came to light on the same day that allegations emerged claiming the migrants had been mistreated while aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, where they were held somewhere at sea since they came down from the lighthouse May 20. The allegations came in the form of a message in a bottle thrown overboard of the cutter and found by a fisherman, who gave it to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is investigating the allegations, said one of the migrants’ attorneys, Virlenys Palma.

The migrants are represented by a nonprofit immigrant legal advocacy group, Movimiento Democracia, or Democracy Movement. Lawyers with the group argued the American Shoal Lighthouse constitutes dry land under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy added in 1995 to the Cuban Adjustment Act. The policy states Cuban migrants caught at sea trying to come to the United States must be sent back to their homeland. Those who reach land, however, can stay and apply for permanent residency a year after their arrival.

U.S. District Court Judge Darrin Gayles on Tuesday denied an emergency injunction petition from Democracy Movement filed May 24 to let them stay in the United States. The ruling means the Coast Guard can begin repatriation proceedings, but Democracy Movement attorneys, working pro bono on the case, filed a request Thursday to be able to speak with the migrants.

Palma said Gayles gave them 24 hours to find where in the Administrative Procedures Act it states that the Cubans have right to access to counsel.

“He’s giving us a chance to show him in black and white that they have the right to be able to see a lawyer,” Palma said.

Gayles, in a 35-page order issued June 28, ruled that the migrants who arrived at American Shoal Light 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.

“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.”

Marilyn Fajardo, a civilian spokeswoman with the Coast Guard, said the agency “just serves as a platform for repatriation,” but the ultimate decision is made by the Coast Guard Investigative Service.

Palma said the USCGIS will also ask the migrants about the mistreatment allegations.

The 24 migrants were confronted by a Coast Guard patrol around noon May 20 and would not stop. After experiencing engine trouble around 1:40 p.m., 21 of the migrants swam off their makeshift vessel and climbed onto the lighthouse. Two were immediately caught after jumping into the water.

About eight hours later, most of the group came down off the 109-foot lighthouse, which is anchored into the coral reef in about four feet of water. Three men in the group hid inside the lighthouse after the others surrendered and weren’t found until the next day.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204