A judge has ordered federal officials to "use their best efforts" to help 15 Cubans return to the United States, weeks after they reached an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys but were sent back to their homeland.
While U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno sympathized with the difficulty the U.S. Coast Guard faces in making split-second decisions at sea, he wrote, "those Cuban refugees who reached American soil in early January 2006 were removed to Cuba illegally."
Under the government's policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are sent back. The federal government said the old bridge that the 15 Cubans reached didn't count as dry land because chunks of the bridge are missing, and it no longer connects to U.S. soil.
The group thought it had reached U.S. soil, and had it landed a 100 yards away on the new bridge, the U.S. Coast Guard would likely have allowed it to stay.
One of the 15 migrants, Elizabeth Hernandez, 23, spoke with The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday evening from her family's home in Matanza, Cuba, where she was celebrating the decision.
"I am so happy," she said. "I always had hope I would be able to return."
What will Castro do?
It was unclear Tuesday whether Cuban President Fidel Castro would allow the 15 to return to the United States from the communist island.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee had argued that the Coast Guard's decision to send the migrants home was reasonable and the judge should defer to it.
A message left Tuesday for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami was not immediately returned. It was unclear whether the government would appeal the decision.
Kendall Coffey, an attorney for the migrants and their families, said the migrants have been stigmatized back in Cuba and told they're not wanted there.
"They're very much wanted here, and we hope they'll be allowed to return and are counting on the U.S to use its best efforts to help them get back where they belong," Coffey said.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, a Cuban-American advocacy group that also joined in the lawsuit against the government, applauded the ruling.
"Really, it is a vindication for all immigrants," said Sanchez, who waged an 11-day hunger strike to protest the group's return to Cuba.
Despite the initial hopes of the Cuban-American community, the judge made clear that his ruling Tuesday was limited in scope.
"In this holding, the Court is not ruling on the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, of the 'wet foot/dry foot' policy," Moreno wrote in the 12-page ruling.
By Tuesday evening, family members of the migrants and their attorneys gathered to celebrate in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
Mariela Conesa, whose husband, Marino Hernandez, and their 13-year-old son Osniel, were among the 15 migrants sent back to Cuba, said she wept tears of joy when she heard the news.
"I call them every three days, but sometimes it pains me to call because I know they're waiting for news, and I have nothing to say. And today, I finally have news," Conesa said.
"As much as I cried out of sadness a month ago when they were sent home, I cried today out of joy," she said.