Three Cubans who capsized and survived 33 days on coconut water, shellfish and rats atop a deserted rocky islet south of Florida were in U.S. immigration custody Thursday, and legal experts said they may be allowed to stay under current federal policies.
A Coast Guard helicopter earlier this week spotted the two men and one woman and hoisted them in baskets from a rocky cliff in Anguilla Cay, a Bahamian islet close to Cuba.
The three were flown to a Key West hospital and then taken Wednesday by U.S. Border Patrol officials to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Pompano Beach, Florida. Officials said the Cubans had no serious injuries.
The Associated Press requested interviews with the survivors, but Coast Guard and immigration officials have not released their identities and did not grant access for interviews.
“They will receive comprehensive medical care from the moment of their arrival and throughout the entirety of their stay,” said ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias. “The three individuals will be afforded access to all legal processes available to them under the laws of the United States.”
Because their names have not been released, it is not clear who their lawyers are. Attorneys familiar with the Cuban Adjustment Act, which has given Cubans a virtually guaranteed path to legal residency and eventual citizenship, said the Cubans could have permission to stay on humanitarian grounds.
Because they were brought ashore by the Coast Guard, they could benefit from the 55-year-old law, which allows Cubans to apply for legal permanent residency a year after their arrival and released into the community, lawyers say.
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“Sooner or later ICE will have to release these people to the community. They did not come here illegally,” said Lorenzo Palomares, an immigration lawyer.
The U.S. Coast Guard did not respond to requests clarifying what considerations were made before the group was flown into the United States.
It was unclear whether the group was originally bound for the U.S. or simply lost at sea, and the Coast Guard has said it focused merely on rescuing them. However, the rocky, uninhabited island is routinely monitored by the Coast Guard for strandings of migrants hoping to reach U.S. soil.
Lt. Riley Beecher, a Coast Guard pilot, said that while on a routine mission they saw on Monday what looked like flags waving in the usually brown and light green topography. “I thought ‘let’s take a closer look.’ I had never seen anything on that island.” Lt. Beecher said. “Then I saw two people were frantically waving their hands trying to get us to come down.”
The crew dropped fresh water and a radio to the three before another crew flew in additional supplies Monday prior to the three being pulled out Tuesday. The Coast Guard said the three told of drinking from coconuts to stay hydrated and eating rats and the meat of conchs, a sea mollusk.
David Abraham, a professor of immigration and citizenship law at the University of Miami school of law, said the migrants’ status could be in limbo because it’s unclear if they were considered to have been detained at sea.
Abraham said it will be interesting to see how Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration will handle this case, considering that former Democratic President Barack Obama — in thawing relations with Cuba — had halted the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that in effect considered any Cuban who set foot on dry land to be automatically a legal arrival.
Thereafter, authorities were able to turn back Cuban migrants who were seeking to enter the country illegally, even after they had set foot on land, though many continued to come and seek protection under asylum laws.
Republican President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s thaw and reinstated economic sanctions on Cuba but did not revert to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, and his administration also took a harder line on asylum applications.
Some Cubans have been detained for months at ICE detention centers without being able to obtain a parole that would allow them to apply for residency in a year.
“This may provide the Biden administration an opportunity,” Abraham said. “The Trump administration, as part of its general crackdown, did not honor that exception for Cubans. In the past ICE would have without question released these folks, paroled them from detention into the community. It would be interesting to see if they do that now.”