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Judge orders U.S. to let Cubans return
U.S. 'unreasonably' sent 15 bridge Cubans back, judge says
It is unclear whether Cuban President Fidel Castro will let the 15 Cubans return to the United States.
MIAMI, Florida (AP) -- A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the U.S. government acted unreasonably when it sent home 15 Cubans who had made it by boat to an abandoned bridge off the Florida Keys.
Federal authorities argued that the Cubans could not stay because they weren't actually on U.S. soil.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ordered the federal officials to "use their best efforts" to help the Cubans return to the United States.
While 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."
But despite the initial hopes of the Cuban-American community, the judge made clear that his ruling 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 a 12-page ruling.
Under the government's controversial policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are sent back.
In this case, all sides agreed the group was not stopped at sea, but the federal government said the old bridge didn't count as dry land because sections of the bridge are missing, and it no longer connects to U.S. soil.
"We're very gratified by the judge's decision," said Kendall Coffey, an attorney for the migrants and their families.
It is unclear whether the 15 would be able to return from the communist island.
But Mercedes Hernandez said she was confident her niece would be allowed to leave.
"I am so happy," she said of the decision. "I am just so surprised."
Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, a Cuban-American advocacy group that also joined in the suit against the government, called the judges ruling a vindication for the migrants.
"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.
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.
Moreno said in his ruling that besides being unreasonable, the Coast Guard's decision was an informal one and carried less weight than a published opinion.
The migrants landed on pilings along a nearly 3-mile span of the former bridge on January 4, as their small boat began to take on water.
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.