January 12, 2006

Cuban exiles challenge ‘bridge’ migrants’ return

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. judge agreed on Thursday to review
Washington's decision to send 15 migrants back to Cuba because
the decrepit Florida Keys bridge they landed on was not
connected to the mainland.

The ruling, which sparked protests from the politically
powerful Cuban-American community, deemed the Cubans had not
touched U.S. soil because the old bridge, which is missing
several sections, is no longer attached to land.

The legal challenge to the ruling, launched by a Florida
Cuban exile group, could have important implications for U.S.
immigration policy because it asks the courts to rule that
anyone who reaches U.S. territorial waters should be considered
to have touched U.S. soil, a lawyer on the case said.

Under the current "wet foot-dry foot" policy, Cubans picked
up at sea are usually returned to the communist-ruled Caribbean
island while those who touch land are generally allowed to

The policy angers both Cuban and non-Cuban immigrant
advocates. Many Cuban-Americans believe all boat people from
the island should be allowed to stay in the United States
because they are fleeing persecution in Cuba.

Non-Cuban immigrant groups say the policy affords special
treatment to Cubans over Haitians, Dominicans and others who
make risky voyages to find better living conditions in the
United States.

The 15 migrants, found on a section of the old Seven Mile
Bridge in the Florida Keys, were taken back to Cuba on Monday.
The bridge, built nearly a century ago to carry the Overseas
Railroad, was replaced by a newer bridge in 1982 and is now
used mainly by fishermen.


The exile group Democracy Movement and relatives of the
repatriated Cubans petitioned a federal court this week to have
the migrants granted humanitarian visas, which could allow them
to return to the United States.

They also asked the court to rule that anyone who reaches
U.S. territorial waters, 12 nautical miles out from the land,
would be considered as having touched U.S. soil.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno agreed to hear
arguments on February 15, calling the bridge "as American as
apple pie" and saying Americans would have trouble
understanding why it was not considered U.S. soil, said Kendall
Coffey, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

"In the future it should be that the law means you are in
the United States if you are within its territorial waters,"
Coffey said.

Such a ruling could strengthen the legal rights of Cuban
and non-Cuban immigrants, thousands of whom are interdicted at
sea each year and taken to their homelands without ever being
brought ashore. "It could have consequences for all
immigrants," Coffey said.

The wet foot-dry foot policy has produced some uneasy
confrontations between Cubans and the U.S. Coast Guard over the
years. In some cases, migrants whose boats came within a few
hundred yards of shore, only to be boxed in by Coast Guard
vessels, have leaped into the sea to try to swim the remaining
distance, with authorities in pursuit.

The decision to send the 15 Cubans back was slammed by
Cuban-American lawmakers. U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, a New
Jersey Democrat, said the Bush administration had wrongly
interpreted a technicality of law. President George W. Bush's
brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also criticized the decision.

Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, called it a sign
of the "complete and utter failure" of wet foot-dry foot.

"The semantics used to return these men and women -- who
have risked so much to reach freedom and are now returned to an
uncertain future -- are an embarrassment," Martinez said.