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Cuban Migrants Come Down From Keys Lighthouse


A group of 19 Cuban migrants jumped off their boat and swam to the American Shoal lighthouse when a Coast Guard boat approached Friday morning.  The group surrendered to authorities shortly after 5 pm on Friday and was transported to a Coast Guard cutter for processing, according to the Coast Guard.

The lighthouse was built in 1880 and has an enclosed area within the structure, where the lighthouse keepers once lived. 

The Coast Guard established a 1,000-yard safety zone around the light, warning other boaters away. Officers from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Customs and Border Patrol were also on scene.

Unknown for now: Whether the lighthouse would qualify as U.S. territory under the current wet foot/dry foot policy that allows Cuban migrants to stay if they reach U.S. land. If they are interdicted at sea, they are usually returned to Cuba.

"We're not even looking at that at this point," said Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss, a Coast Guard spokesman, on Friday afternoon. The Coast Guard was focusing on getting migrants safely off the light, he said. Then "That will be one of the things to look at — what does this structure count as. Is it dry land or not?"

One case that could serve as precedent: In January 2006, a group of 15 migrants landed on a section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge in the Middle Keys. Federal officials ruled that it did not count as U.S. soil since it was a disconnected section that doesn't touch land on either end.

The migrants were returned to Cuba but Cuban-Americans in Miami sued on their behalf. A federal judge ruled in their favor and said their return to Cuba was wrong because the bridge was still U.S. property.