- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

MARATHON, Fla. — The natives who live on the sand by the sea usually don’t talk politics. Why run away from the world if you bring it with you? But everybody everywhere seems to have an opinion about immigration, and just about everybody thinks our immigration policy — or lack of coherent policy — is for the birds, though they wouldn’t wish it on the seagulls soaring serenely overhead. Immigration law has more in common with the shadowy bullsharks you sometimes see in deep water.

But whether for more or less immigration, I can’t find anyone in these parts who think the 15 Cubans, including a toddler and a teenager, who landed at the Old Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon midpoint in the Florida Keys should have been sent back to Cuba. Unfair is unfair. That was in January, and last week a federal judge got around to agreeing with the popular opinion that is still on the boil. When illegal immigration shows a human face, the specifics of the law seem harsh indeed.

Here’s what happened: The Cubans landed on an abandoned bridge that is no longer a part of U.S. Highway 1, which connects the keys that run to the tip of Florida at Key West. The government argued that the Cubans didn’t meet the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows refugees to apply for residence only if they actually reach American soil (or concrete). If they’re plucked out of the sea, even if just offshore, they’re sent back to the embrace of Fidel Castro.

Refugees with dry feet can climb onto bridges, piers, roads made of cement, asphalt, rocks, dirt (even mud) anywhere along the shore of the mainland. The losers are picked up in boats, rafts, or as swimmers in the roiling sea. The fragmented seven-mile-long abandoned bridge the 15 Cubans climbed onto, though no longer a part of the highway system, is still owned by the state of Florida, but that wasn’t good enough. The old bridge, kept as a tourist curiosity, was even temporarily reattached in 1993, and thus became a part of the mainland once more, for the filming of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie “True Lies.” It was blown apart at the climax of the movie.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ruled that the Cubans who made it to the fragmented bridge should have been considered legal; the government’s reasoning in sending them back was “implausible,” “unreasonable,” and “unpersuasive.” He observed wryly that the Coast Guard’s logic would have spared them if only the Cubans had landed when the bridge was a movie set. The judge instructed the Department of Homeland Security to make its “best efforts” to bring them back to the United States. Fat chance.

In 1994, after a mass boat exodus from Cuba, the United States negotiated the agreement with Fidel that allows 20,000 Cubans to legally migrate to the United States each year. Illegal immigration dropped sharply, although last year almost 3,000 illegal Cubans, all with heartbreaking stories, were plucked from the sea, often near death from hunger, exhaustion and exposure, and sent home.

When Florida newspapers scorched the Bush administration for returning the 15 Cubans, Gov. Jeb Bush prevailed on his brother to meet a Cuban-American delegation to discuss the wet foot, dry foot policy in general, and the plight of the 15 Cubans specifically. The heartless way Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, forced little Elias Gonzales back to Havana after he was rescued floating in an inner tube off Florida was on everybody’s mind. The parallel seemed obvious.

So do the absurdities. If that abandoned bridge doesn’t count as American soil, would a murder committed on it go unpunished by an American court? Could American teens drink, do drugs and party there? Could it host an offshore gambling casino in defiance of Florida law? Maybe the Canadians who are forever scouring Florida for tropical property could take it over and the Cubans could become their problem.

Down here the Keys are called “Paradise Found.” Jimmy Buffet, who created “Margaritaville,” is fond of saying that “if people can’t go to paradise I can bring it to them.” The Cubans who landed on Seven Mile Bridge in search of paradise just landed on a bridge too far. The shining city on the hill turned out to be a mirage. “All that work, all that sacrifice,” Alexis Gonzalez Blanco, 28, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “It’s not easy.” Paradise lost is nearly always impossible to regain.

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