Judge rules against Cuban migrants who clung to Florida Keys lighthouse

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A group of 21 Cuban migrants who reached a lighthouse off the Florida Keys last month should be returned to the island nation because the structure does not count as U.S. soil, a Miami federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Judge Darrin Gayles' ruling said the 136-year-old American Shoal lighthouse does not count as dry land under the U.S.'s "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy.

Lawyers for the migrants had argued the lighthouse is U.S. territory, and their clients should get to stay. They had previously asked for an injunction to keep the U.S. Coast Guard from repatriating the migrants, but Tuesday's order denied that request.

Attorneys for the federal government acknowledged the lighthouse is U.S. property but argued it was not equal to dry land.

The lighthouse is located about 7 miles from Sugarloaf Key. At issue was whether the lighthouse, a historic 109-foot iron structure that was in use from 1880 until 2015, qualified as U.S. territory under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. Under that policy, Cubans who reach U.S. shores are usually allowed to stay, while those intercepted at sea are generally returned home.

The ruling comes amid a surge of migration from the communist island to the U.S., partly out of fear the favorable policy might change as relations warm between the two Cold War foes. The Coast Guard has said attempts by Cubans to reach the U.S. by sea increased 155 percent in May compared to the same month last year.

The 21 Cuban migrants who reached the lighthouse May 20 stayed there for several hours before they agreed to board a Coast Guard cutter, where they have remained since. The lighthouse has a large, eight-room living area once occupied by a keeper and other workers and sits on a submerged reef that was deeded to the U.S. by the state of Florida in the 1870s, according to testimony at a hearing earlier this month.

In 2006, a different Miami federal judge ruled that Cubans who reached a portion of the abandoned Seven Mile Bridge in the Keys that was no longer connected to land still qualified as "dry foot" because the structure was U.S. territory.

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