Roberto Leon / NBC News
Fourteen of the 15 Cuban would-be migrants who were initially sent back to Cuba, but may have a second chance at American citizenship.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 3/2/2006 6:26:24 PM ET 2006-03-02T23:26:24

SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, Cuba — Ernesto Hernandez hopes his luck is about to change.

Six times in the last 16 years the car mechanic welded a boat out of scrap metal, packed up his wife and son, and tried to cross the Florida Straits. “One day,” said Hernandez, “I am going to be reunited with my sister,” who lives near Tampa, Fla.

Five times he never made it out of Cuban waters. On each journey, he was spotted by a Cuban Border Patrol boat and turned back. Prior to 1994, when it was a criminal offense to leave the island without a government exit permit, he ended up in jail.

Just once Hernandez succeeded. In January, he and 14 other Cuban migrants spent two days at sea before they ran out of gas. Enduring high winds and foul weather, they made it to a discarded bridge piling in the Florida Keys, where they spent the night. They called family in Miami from a cell phone and, by morning, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter arrived to pick them up.

“We thought we were home-free,” said Hernandez.

But the Department of Homeland Security decided otherwise.

Sent home, but maybe not for long
“At first,” said Hernandez, “we were told we would be taken to Krome,” a South Florida detention center that processes foreign migrants. “But everything changed in 30 minutes. They refused to tell us where we were going, but when we saw the Cuban mountains we knew we were back where we started.”

Under current U.S. immigration policy, Cubans who reach U.S. land are usually permitted to stay, while people stopped at sea are sent back to the island. Homeland Security sent the group of 15 home under this “wet foot-dry foot” rule because the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge where they were discovered is in disuse and no longer connected to U.S. soil.

The decision angered their Miami relatives, who sought legal help.

Tuesday, a federal district court judge in Miami ruled in their favor. Judge Federico Moreno called the Coast Guard repatriation “unreasonable” and “illegal,” and instructed federal officials to “use their best efforts” to bring the 15 Cubans back to the United States. Government prosecutors have 30 days to appeal the decision.

Roberto Leon / NBC News
Ernesto Hernandez, with his wife and son, is hoping that he still will get a chance at life in the U.S. “I want to just walk and feel free, sit in a park and just breathe the fresh air,” he says.

It is not clear if President Fidel Castro’s government, which restricts the freedom of Cubans to leave the island, will permit them to leave for the United States.

Sticking together
Since the ruling, most of the group has stuck close together, spending time at a relative’s farmhouse in the small town of San Francisco de Paula, 90 miles east of Havana.

“I’ve hardly slept,” said Alexis Gonzalez, 28, who received the news from a high school friend now living in Miami. “I jumped up and down when I got the call. I was ecstatic.” He is convinced that Miami is in his immediate future. “I am going to get a job, a car and a house,” said Gonzalez.

His cousin, another member of the group, is more reserved. “I thought once that I had made it,” said Junior Blanco. “Let’s see what happens.”

Before leaving in January, Blanco had worked at the local quarry and lived with his young family in employee housing. By the time he returned, both his job and house had been assigned to someone else.

Blanco admits that he’s been too depressed to try to find another job. “He’s barely had the energy to go on,” said his wife, Elizabeth Hernandez, as she struggled to control their energetic toddler.

Deal between Washington and Havana
The repatriation of Cuban boat people started a decade ago under agreements between Washington and Havana that were designed to avoid another mass exodus like the one in 1994 when 35,000 people took to the sea, many in flimsy rafts, fleeing economic distress in post-Soviet Cuba.

The United States agreed to grant at least 20,000 visas a year to encourage orderly emigration.

But Castro routinely accuses Washington of encouraging Cubans to embark on dangerous crossings in precarious crafts by allowing them to stay if they manage to make it across.

Economic hardship continues to fuel a constant exodus. In fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 2,712 Cubans at sea, the most since the 1994 crisis. At least 39 others died trying to get to the United States.

Determined to go, but hurdles ahead
Ernesto Hernandez's group has already applied for Cuban passports and plans to take a bus to the Cuban capital on Monday to apply for U.S. visas at the American Mission.

But, the process to emigrate legally from Cuba is not only burdensome, but expensive. It can take months and fees run about $1,500 per person, steep when the average salary is $10 per month.

Because of the high profile of their case, Ernesto Hernandez does not expect to encounter problems from either government. “But I’m worried about the cost,” said Hernandez who ekes out a living fixing flat tires. “Frankly, I don’t know how I am going to afford this.”

But after spending a third of his life trying to leave Cuba, he is determined to find a way. 

“I have a lot of dreams," Hernandez said. "I want to be happy with my family. I want to see my son become someone."

Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana. Reuters contributed to this report.

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