What started out a few days after the New Year as a routine coast guard intervention off the coast of Florida may turn out to be the Republican's Achilles heel in the heavily contested Sunshine State. The exile Cuban community, who have long been solid GOP supporters, are starting to look at other alternatives in light of the administration's recent tough stance on immigration. The deportation of 15 Cuban refugees plucked off the Flagler Bridge in the Florida Keys in January is just the latest in a long series of events that have exiles concerned that the current immigration policies of the Administration coupled with the increasing rhetoric to "closed the borders" coming from certain elements within the party have left them no choice but to rethink their positions.
It all started in the early morning darkness of Jan. 5, when at 4a.m. the ramshackle boat containing 15 Cuban refuges began to sink just feet from the dilapidated remains of the Old Seven Mile Bridge that used to link the mainland to the Keys. Clamoring onto the bridge abutment, the refugees began making frantic calls to friends and relatives in Miami to come rescue them, believing they had set foot on US soil and safely made it to their destination. According to the current "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Cuban refugees who manages to reach dry land in the United States are usually allowed to remain in the country, while those caught at sea are sent back.
But before relatives could arrive, a Coast Guard cutter showed up and began processing the refugees for deportation. Apparently, the old bridge, which runs parallel to its current replacement, had fallen into disrepair over the years and due to missing spans, is no longer is considered “connect to land” according to Coast Guard Officials. This is despite the fact that bridges, piers, abutments and rock outcroppings are considered land under current rules.
``The `bridge' is kind of a misnomer,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil, spokesman for the department's Southeast region. He said officials in Washington determined the Cubans should be considered ``feet wet,'' because they were not able to walk to land from where they landed.
In any other place, the incident might have gone down as just another example of how the Bush administration has gotten tough on immigration. But not here in Miami, home to the million-strong and politically potent Cuban exile community, where many people say the "wet foot, dry foot" rule is ambiguous and unfairly applied. Outraged, South Florida's Cubans are directing their anger squarely at President Bush, who carried Florida largely on the strength of their vote in the last two presidential elections.
At least one influential Cuban, Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), said it might be time for the Cubans to do the unthinkable -- reconsider their unwavering loyalty to Republican candidates.
"This community must face the realization that politicians, especially national politicians, come here to Miami when they need our votes and forget their promises," he said. "President Bush came here and said he would review this policy, and nothing has happened. Cuban voters will be looking into this reality a little bit when they cast their votes."
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This incident comes on the heels of controversial policy changes in Dec. 2003 and June 2004 that put new travel restrictions on exiles wishing to visit Cuba. The new restrictions:
*limited Cuban-Americans to family visits only every three years (no humanitarian or emergency exceptions);
*redefined "family" to include only immediate members;
*eliminated the "fully-hosted" category of legal travel entirely;
*restricted travel for education to semester-long for-credit full-time college or graduate students
Exile leaders also complain that the Coast Guard has gotten more aggressive in policing the border. "Cubans have watched in horror as Coast Guard workers tackled Cubans like linebackers when they leapt from boats and made a dash from surf to sand.
Cubans have also been shocked by television footage of Coast Guard cutters bumping rickety handmade craft as refugees wafted toward land, sometimes causing people to tumble out of boats and drown."
As the exile community reassesses its place in the Republican Party, Florida's Republican leadership has been scrambling to shore up support. Gov. Jeb Bush along with Sen. Mel Martinez put in calls to the White House on behalf of the 15 bridge deportees, while South Florida's Cuban- American U.S. House members launched a lobbying campaign to convince the Bush administration to change the controversial ''wet-foot, dry-foot'' policy.
But the Florida Republicans will come up against some resistance from within their own party as the immigration issue begins to move closer to the center of political debate. Next month, the Senate is expected to start debate on various immigration bills, including the anti-immigrant - HR 4437, the Kennedy/McCain bill, John Cornyn's bill and quite a few others. Many Republicans are lobbying for legislation that will have much stricter restrictions on immigration and harsher penalties for undocumented immigrants.
In this climate, and given the Presidents reluctance to address the issue beyond his calls for guest workers, it might be impossible for the Republicans to reach any sort of compromise that would alleviate the concerns of Florida's Cuban community. If that is the case, the state that was already the most electoraly volatile in the nation may become out of reach for future republican candidates.
( authors note: The newest WaPo article reports the incident at the bridge as taking place on Dec. 26. All other reports, including those coming out of Havana have the refugees leaving Cuba on 1-2, and arriving at the bridge in the early morning hours of Thurs 1-5. The final deportation was on 1-9. I have contacted WaPO to see if they can confirm the 12-26 date, If they are in fact correct it would mean that the refugees were held in custody for fourteen days before deportation. That would change the story considerably… as it would mean that there was more than enough time for the Administration to intercede on the refugee's behalf if they wanted to. I will update accordingly)
Miami herald 1-9-06
Miami Herald 1-10-06
Cuban American National Foundation
Miami Herald 2-07-06
San Diego Union Tribune 12-18-05
Other stories from Migra Matters on the bridge refugees: