American Shoals migrants still in limbo

Group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in standoff with Coast Guard on Friday, May 20, 2016. Photos courtesy WSVN.
Group of Cubans atop American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in standoff with Coast Guard on Friday, May 20, 2016. Photos courtesy WSVN.

The immigration status of 21 Cuban migrants who engaged in a day-long standoff with U.S. Coast Guard crews in May while clinging to a lower Keys Lighthouse is still in limbo despite a federal judge’s ruling this week that the government can send them back to their homeland.

New allegations were introduced in U.S. District Court Thursday alleging the migrants were mistreated while aboard a Coast Guard cutter, where they were held somewhere at sea since they came down from the lighthouse May 20. The allegations came in the form of a message in a bottle thrown overboard of the cutter and found by a fisherman, who gave it to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is investigating the allegations, said one of the migrants’ attorneys, Virlenys Palma.

The migrants are represented by a nonprofit immigrant legal advocacy group, Movimiento Democracia, or Democracy Movement. Lawyers with the group argued the American Shoal Lighthouse, 6.5 nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key, constitutes dry land under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy added in 1995 to the Cuban Adjustment Act. The policy states Cuban migrants caught at sea trying to come to the United States must be sent back to their homeland. Those who reach land, however, can stay and apply for permanent residency a year after their arrival.

U.S. District Court Judge Darrin Gayles Tuesday denied an emergency injunction petition from Democracy Movement filed May 24 to let them stay in the United States. The ruling means the Coast Guard can begin repatriation proceedings, but Democracy Movement attorneys, working pro bono on the case, filed a request Thursday to be able to speak with the migrants.

Palma said Gayles gave them 24 hours to find where in the Administrative Procedures Act it states that the Cubans have right to access to counsel.

“He’s giving us a chance to show him in black and white that they have the right to be able to see a lawyer,” Palma said.

Gayles, in a 35-page order issued June 28, ruled that the migrants who arrived at American Shoal Light were not denied constitutional rights to which they are entitled. He did not weigh in on whether the Cubans reached dry land, but rather stated the Coast Guard and U.S. Homeland Security were not wrong in determining the migrants were interdicted at sea.

“The Court neither approves nor disapproves the Executive Branch’s decision that the Cuban migrants in this case do not qualify for refugee processing as dry foot arrivals to the United States,” Gayles wrote. “Developments and revisions of immigration and foreign policy are left to the political branches of the government.”

Marilyn Fajardo, a civilian spokeswoman with the Coast Guard, said the repatriation proceedings have begun, but the agency just “serves as a platform for repatriation.” This means that U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service will now interview the migrants to determine whether they will be sent back to Cuba or to the Migrant Operation Center at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay. It’s not clear if these interviews have begun.

Palma said the USGIS will also ask the migrants about the mistreatment allegations.

At least 23 migrants were confronted by a Coast Guard patrol around noon on May 20 and would not stop. After experiencing engine trouble around 1:40 p.m., 21 of the migrants swam off their makeshift vessel and climbed onto the lighthouse. Two were immediately caught after jumping into the water.

About eight hours later, most of the group came down off the 109-foot lighthouse, which is anchored into the coral reef in about four feet of water. Three men in the group hid inside the lighthouse after the others surrendered and weren’t found until the next day.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204