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Cuban migrant lawyers say Keys lighthouse equals U.S. arrival

Cuban migrant lawyers say Keys lighthouse equals U.S. arrival
AP Legal Affairs Writer

Cuban migrants who climbed onto a 136-year-old lighthouse standing in
shallow water off the Florida Keys should be allowed to remain in the
U.S. because the structure is American territory just as if they had
reached dry land, their attorneys told a federal judge Thursday.

Attorneys for the federal government, however, said at a hearing that
the American Shoal lighthouse located about 7 miles from Sugarloaf Key
is U.S. property but does not equal reaching U.S. shores. No immediate
decision was announced after the hearing.

At issue is whether the lighthouse, a historic 109-foot iron structure
that was in use from 1880 until 2015, qualifies 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 controversy comes amid a surge in Cuban attempts to migrate 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 said attempts by Cubans to reach the U.S. by sea have 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 ever 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 Thursday.

“This is a federal building, on federal land, in federal territory,”
said Kendall Coffey, a former Miami U.S. attorney who is among the
migrants’ lawyers. “We believe they are entitled to not being
repatriated” to Cuba.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee said the Coast Guard had made a
reasonable decision that the lighthouse did not equal U.S. shores and
urged U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles not to overturn it. He said it
is too far to stretch the definition of “dry land” to include a
lighthouse located on a Florida Straits reef, where the water is 4 feet
deep at low tide.

“Just because the government owns a lighthouse does not mean it is dry
land. It is surrounded by water. It is built on submerged land. It is
not dry land,” Lee said. “Somebody who wants to journey to the United
States wants to get to dry land.”

Gayles, saying at one point he was “wracking my brain” over the
competing issues, did not issue an immediate ruling and said he would do
so in two or three weeks. He noted the confusion surrounding U.S. policy
toward Cuban migrants, which differs from that involving any other

“This sounds like it comes down to whether this was a reasonable
interpretation of an unclear policy,” Gayles said. “There are important
decisions to be made. I don’t want to be rushed.”

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. That ruling could play a key role in the
lighthouse case, attorneys said.

The 21 migrants, meanwhile, are left in limbo. The Coast Guard had
previously said it would not repatriate them until the legal questions
were settled, but no such guarantee was offered Thursday. Gayles
requested that if possible, the migrants remain under U.S. control until
the matter is over. Lee said he would take the request up with Coast
Guard officials.

Source: Cuban migrant lawyers say Keys lighthouse equals U.S. arrival |
In Cuba Today –

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