MIAMI – In an unusual move, 28 Cubans who were caught trying to slip into the United States were brought ashore this week so they can testify against those accused of organizing the deadly smuggling voyage — a step that means they can stay permanently in this country.
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the "unique circumstances" of the case led prosecutors to bring the group onto U.S. soil under material-witness warrants, which could require them to testify before a grand jury or at a trial.
"Smugglers often treat migrants as if they were human cargo," Acosta said. "This must stop."
The 28 Cubans were caught aboard a crowded speedboat after a chase July 8 that resulted in the death of a Cuban woman. They had been held since then aboard a Coast Guard cutter at sea. On Wednesday, though, they were taken to Key West, and on Thursday they were brought to Miami.
Under the U.S. "wet foot-dry foot" policy, Cubans who reach American soil are usually allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are returned home.
The Bush administration has made other recent exceptions to the wet foot-dry foot policy, including bringing in the parents of a 6-year-old Cuban boy who died during a smuggling attempt in October.
But it is unusual for an entire group to be brought ashore to provide evidence in a criminal smuggling case.
A federal magistrate Thursday allowed all the Cubans in U.S. custody to be released to their relatives in Miami under the guarantee that the families will pay $25,000 per person if they do not appear in court when required. Several immigrants in the courtroom wiped away tears.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Cuban exile group Democracy Movement, witnessed the Cubans' reunions with relatives: "It was very emotional. They were very happy, screaming and yelling, in the Cuban style."
Outside the courtroom, 16-year-old Yamila Carpio and her sister Yaremis Carpio, 14, fought back tears as they waited to hear whether their mother, Odalis Conde, 41, would be released. The two girls were among the group of migrants, but had been released to relatives Wednesday night.
Upon hearing the news that her mother would be released, Yamila smiled and said she could not find the words to describe her emotions.
Three men are being held without bail on smuggling charges stemming from the incident and could get life in prison. Their speedboat, containing 31 immigrants, was intercepted by the Coast Guard in the Florida Keys.
One immigrant, 24-year-old Anei Machado Gonzalez, died after hitting her head when the boat's operators ignored orders to stop and tried to ram a Coast Guard vessel, authorities said. The Coast Guard fired two shots into the vessel's engine to disable it.
Omar Alberti, 40, whose 25-year-old cousin Miguel Alberti was on the boat, said he did not believe the men should be tried for the woman's death. Outside court, he said the "Coast Guard is responsible. They should let them go."
Two other immigrants aboard the speedboat — one a pregnant woman and the other a man who was ill — had previously been brought to U.S. soil, officials said.