Lighthouse-clinging Migrants Being Screened Aboard Coast Guard Cutter

A group of Cuban migrants are discovered south of Key West, Florida, Sep. 13, 2015. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicted the group of migrants who were later repatriated back to Cuba. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
A group of Cuban migrants are discovered south of Key West, Florida, Sep. 13, 2015. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicted the group of migrants who were later repatriated back to Cuba. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The 19 Cuban migrants who abandoned their boat Friday and swam to the American Shoal lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key after the Coast Guard approached their makeshift vessel are now aboard a cutter and being screened by U.S. Customs and Immigration to determine whether they'll remain in the United States or be returned to Cuba.

Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Doss said Saturday that the migrants -- 21 in all because two others swam to the Coast Guard cutter -- "will be processed through the normal screening that takes place for interdictions at sea."

Until then, the migrants will go wherever the cutter goes and stay on board until the U.S. government makes a decision on what their status is and where they can go, Doss said. As of Saturday morning the cutter was in the Caribbean.

"Usually the process is no more than a few days, but it's not set in stone," Doss said. "We try to do it as quickly as possible. We do take great care in taking care of people while they're aboard, making sure they have food, water, shelter and medical care."

The Coast Guard approached the migrants early Friday after receiving a phone call from a boater who had noticed them, Doss said. The group climbed the lighthouse early Friday morning, and didn't come down until about 5:30 p.m.

Doss explained then that migrants taken at sea "typically . . . are returned to their country of origin,'' but that sometimes "special circumstances -- like fear of persecution" are considered.

It was unclear whether the lighthouse, which sits in the water about five miles off shore from Sugarloaf, will be considered land under the U.S. immigration policy of wet-foot, dry-foot. The policy allows Cubans who step foot on U.S. soil to stay there and apply for permanent residency after a year.

"That hasn't been decided yet," Doss said Saturday. "The questions will get answered through the process, but we don't have the answers yet."

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