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Federal Judge Delays Decision On Fate of Cubans that Reached Lighthouse

Spencer Parts
Lawyers for the Cuban migrants spoke outside the Federal courthouse in downtown Miami after the ruling Thursday.

Federal Judge Darrin Gayles will take at least another two weeks to consider whether the American Shoal Light House – located in the Florida Straits 7 miles off Sugarloaf Key – constitutes dry land. If he rules that it does, the 21 Cuban migrants that took refuge in it can stay in the U.S.

The group of migrants swam to the lighthouse after traveling by raft from Cuba, and were taken onto a Coast Guard cutter after an eight-hour standoff on May 20th. 

“For all intents and purposes their feet were dry, they were not on water,” said William Sanchez, one of the lawyers representing the group pro bono. “Them having arrived on a structure is considered arriving on U.S. territory and if nothing else the judge should make that determination and not the Coast Guard.”

In 2006, the same group of six lawyers made a similar case, successfully, regarding an abandoned bridge. Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have changed since then and some members of Congress have called for a repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who reach American land to stay. That has prompted a surge of migrants who advocates say still face repression and poverty at home.

“We do the work because we believe in the cause and so many of the people we’re trying to protect are still fleeing a regime that's communist that still puts people in jail if they speak out against the government,” Sanchez said.

Kendall Coffey, former U.S. attorney for South Florida, also spoke on behalf of the Cuban migrants. In 2000, Coffey represented the Miami family of Elián González , the Cuban boy who became the center of an international custody and immigration battle after being found in the Florida Straits.

“It’s a human rights case. In this day and age, some of the most important human rights cases involve the rights of immigrants and refugees whether it’s on our own shores or people attempting to escape the atrocities in Syria,” Coffey said.

In court, Coffey argued that decisions on what constitutes American “land” should not be left to Federal agencies which lack defined processes to make those decisions.  Judge Gayles’ ruling, expected to come in 2-3 weeks, may establish a clear test for Federal agencies to determine what constitutes “dry land” for Cuban migrants.  

The Coast Guard has not yet determined where the migrants will await the ruling, and they will likely stay on the Cutter until Monday, Sanchez said. In a legal twist, the 21 Cubans may await the ruling at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay – in Cuba. 

Read Fred Grimm's column in the Miami Herald on the migrants and the Cuban Adjustment Act here.