Thursday, November 11, 2010

2 Cubans rescued at sea might stay

Picture from 1994, behind, center, the building of the former Soviet Embassy, now Russian.
Two of the seven Cuban refugees pulled from a raft in the Atlantic Ocean and brought to Cape Canaveral Hospital this week have a greater chance of staying in the United States than their counterparts who were kept aboard a Coast Guard cutter, officials said.

The two unidentified Cubans were treated at the Brevard County hospital for respiratory problems and dehydration after spending 14 days floating on a makeshift raft that ended up about 45 miles off the coast of Volusia County.

The five others on board the same raft were secured aboard the Coast Guard cutter in Port Canaveral and are expected to be taken back to Cuba within the next week, Coast Guard officials say.

The two who were hospitalized and released have been turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. The medical tab for the short stay likely will be absorbed by the hospital's charitable service, Health First officials said Thursday.

Immigration authorities say the two probably will benefit from the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy enacted under President Bill Clinton in 1995. It means that if Cubans literally touch U.S. soil, they can remain rather than be returned to Cuba if they are interdicted at sea. The policy does not apply to other immigrants attempting to get into the United States illegally.

"They will be processed according to our border protection policies," said Migbalia Travis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Border Patrol. "Under normal circumstances, they should be able to stay, but we cannot discuss their case directly."

The "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, a change in the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, was designed to stem the flow of refugees after President Fidel Castro allowed more than 100,000 Cubans -- including many from mental hospitals and prisons -- to escape by boat to the United States in 1980. As a result, the number of Cubans interdicted at sea this year stands at 422, compared to 38,500 refugees who attempted to get into the United States in 1994, which was a peak year.

Today, Coast Guard officials said those who make it to shore are sent to immigration centers to be interviewed and processed for criminal background checks.

"They could still end up being treated as "wet foot" by the U.S. government. They'll be taken into custody, but they don't have the right to legal protection during the interview and inspection process," said David Stoller, a Melbourne-based immigration attorney.

After a year and a day, Cuban refugees can apply for permanent residency, he said.

"Basically, if you make it here, you're here. But, you never know what's going to happen. Today, it's a different atmosphere than before. Most of the Cubans today are economic refugees more than anything else."

Other refugees, such as 15 Haitians rescued June 24 at sea by the Coast Guard about 14 miles off Brevard County, do not have the same status under federal law, Stoller pointed out. That group was repatriated to Haiti within a week, Coast Guard officials reported.

"We treat Cubans differently, while others are sent back," Stoller said, citing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

Some Cuban-American residents living in Brevard County -- many of whom came here as political refugees -- say the policy needs to be reviewed.

Roland Guilarte, 52, of Satellite Beach recalls the struggles of learning English and adapting to the fast pace of American culture after he and his family escaped Castro's regime aboard a 1967 freedom flight to Miami.

"We were legal refugees and it took about two to 21/2 years for us to be processed," Guilarte said. "But today, the main difference is that you have Cuban organizations that offer assistance and housing for anyone like the two people in this situation."

Some limited federal assistance is also available. He added that he had sympathy for the five who face repatriation to Cuba, even though they were brought to Port Canaveral yet not allowed to leave the Coast Guard cutter.

"These people are oppressed, and now they're going back to a living hell," he said. "We understand that we don't want to strain the federal government with taking care of these folks. We don't like the 'wet-foot, dry-foot' policy. We want to be able to take care of our own."

A look at Cubans interdicted at sea:
Year -- Number
2005 -- 2,712
2006 -- 2,810
2007 -- 2,868
2008 -- 2,199
2009 -- 799
2010 -- 422
-- U.S. Coast Guard

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