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Did Cuban migrants who landed on lighthouse have 'dry feet?'

One topic that we've been following closely on our blog over the last few months is the massive increase in the number of Cuban migrants fleeing their home country and attempting to enter the U.S.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this rush to enter the U.S. has shown no signs of abating. Indeed, the Coast Guard took 21 migrants into custody in the Florida Keys just last week, and is now awaiting word from immigration officials on whether they should be taken back to Cuba or allowed to enter the U.S.

What exactly happened?

Last Friday, a Coast Guard cutter intercepted a group of 21 Cuban migrants in the waters near the American Shoal Lighthouse, which is roughly 5-7 miles off Sugarloaf Key. Rather than be apprehended, the 21 migrants jumped off their boat and swam to the lighthouse. Two of them eventually swam to the cutter on their own, while the remaining 19 were removed by Coast Guard officials.

The key question now being addressed in court is whether the lighthouse can be considered U.S. soil, a vital inquiry under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.

What is the "wet foot, dry foot" policy?"  

In general, the policy dictates that Cuban migrants who are apprehended on the water between their home nation and the U.S. have "wet feet," and therefore must be taken home. On the other hand, those Cuban migrants who set foot on U.S. soil have "dry feet," and are allowed to stay. Indeed, they are initially eligible for legal permanent resident status and ultimately U.S. citizenship.

What's going on in the case of the 21 migrants?

Attorneys representing the 21 migrants have filed a motion in federal court asking the judge to allow them to remain in the country given that historical evidence shows the American Shoal Lighthouse is indeed U.S. territory that is managed/maintained by the Coast Guard. In other words, the migrants secured dry feet once they set foot on the lighthouse.

The basis for their argument is a 2006 decision by a federal court judge, who held that a group of 15 Cuban migrants who made it to the old Seven Mile Bridge had dry feet given that the well-known passageway was U.S. territory.

Is this good law?    

Interestingly, some experts have opined that the decision in the Seven Mile Bridge case was really nothing more than the judge signing off on a settlement to grant the 15 migrants visas and that the decision never actually addressed the issue of whether the bridge was U.S. territory. As such, they argue, there really is no precedent.

It will be interesting to see what transpires. Stay tuned for updates.

If you or a loved one has questions or concerns relating to any immigration matter -- from citizenship to deportation -- consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

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