A group of 21 Cuban migrants who were found at a Florida lighthouse 6.5 miles from Sugarloaf Key on May 20 must be repatriated, a federal judge decided on Tuesday. The migrants had been awaiting the decision for five weeks aboard Coast Guard vessels off the coast.
The case hinged on the interpretation of the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy under which Cubans who arrive on land are permitted to stay in the United States, while those intercepted at sea are sent back.
The Cubans' lawyers claimed that because it's a federal facility, the lighthouse should be considered U.S. territory.
"These refugees landed at a federal building that is on federal property. This literally and legally constitutes a dry foot," said Kendall Coffey, the lawyer representing the Cubans.
The argument was based on a similar case in which migrants landed on an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys, but since the bridge was connected to the mainland, the judge decided to let them remain in the United States.
Federal prosecutors argued that while the lighthouse is owned by the federal government, it's not U.S. territory, and that landing on a lighthouse is not the same as landing on a beach.
"Passengers traveling to the U.S. are not asking to be left at lighthouses located 6.5 nautical miles from the coast," said Assistant US Attorney Dexter Lee in court documents.
The Cuban Adjustment Act is allows Cuban nationals who reach the U.S. land to stay unique immigrant privileges including the right to permanent residency after one year. The controversial law has come under fire for being overly generous to Cubans, especially after the United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations last year.
Between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015, more than 43,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S., representing an increase of more than 77% over the previous period.