MIAMI – Cuban-American community activists and politicians lambasted the U.S. government's decision to repatriate 15 Cubans picked up from the base of an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys.
An attorney for the families of the migrants said he planned to file a suit Tuesday asking a federal judge to allow the group to return.
The migrants were sent back to Cuba Monday after U.S. officials concluded that the section of the partially collapsed bridge where they landed did not count as dry land under the government's policy because it was no longer connected to any of the Keys.
Under the U.S. government's "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cubans who reach dry land in the United States are usually allowed to remain in this country, while those caught at sea are sent back.
"Through a legal review, the migrants were determined to be feet-wet and processed in accordance with standard procedure," Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Dana Warr, said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., called the government's decision an example of "the complete and utter failure" of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy.
"Because they reached an old bridge and not a new bridge there's a judgment they didn't reach American soil? 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 in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (news, bio, voting record), R-Miami, called the decision absurd. "If any crime would have been committed on that bridge, the perpetrators would have been arrested and charged with violating U.S. laws," she said in a statement.
The group — including a 2-year-old and a 13-year-old — left Matanzas Province in Cuba late on the night of Jan. 2 aboard a small, homemade boat. The migrants were rescued Wednesday morning by the Coast Guard from the base of the bridge just south of Marathon Key.
Mercedes Hernandez Guerrero said initially she was elated to receive a call from her niece Elizabeth Hernandez, telling her that she and her husband and their 2-year-old son John Michael had reached the bridge.
"I said stay there. The currents are strong. I thought I was giving them good advice," Hernandez recalled.
But her joy at her niece's arrival turned to concern as the days passed and she heard nothing more from the group.
William Sanchez, an attorney for relatives of the Cubans migrants who planned to file a motion asking for the group's return, said he was on his way to file an emergency injunction to halt their return when he learned they were already back in Cuba.
He noted that the Coast Guard's own Web site states that if immigrants "touch U.S. soil, bridges, piers or rocks," their feet are considered dry.
But Coast Guard Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil said the structure the migrants landed on didn't fall into any of those categories.
"The 'bridge' is kind of a misnomer," said O'Neil, spokesman for the department's Southeast region. He said officials in Washington determined the Cubans should be considered "feet wet," because they were not able to walk to land from where they landed.