MIAMI (CBSMiami) - A federal judge in Miami sided with the government in a ruling on whether 24 Cuban migrants should stay in the United States after they were found on the American Shoal Lighthouse about five miles off Sugarloaf Key last month.
In a ruling Tuesday, the judge denied their request to be able to stay in the United States.
Supporters of the immigrants were crestfallen at the judge's decision.
Ramon Saul Sanchez leads the Democracy Movement that brought the legal action on their behalf.
"This is a very sad moment for all of us, but we have had our day in court," Sanchez said. "We had our hopes that freedom would be enjoyed by these people after they invested their lives and the sacrifices they have done."
"These things will not stop happening," he added. "The exodus will not stop until the criminal dictatorship of the Castro family stops destroying the Cuban nation."
The judge did leave the door open for relatives of the immigrants to bring suit challenging their return to Cuba. A status hearing in which that could be discussed will be held this Thursday.
The suit would no doubt be rendered moot, however, because the refugees probably would have been returned to Cuba, if they have not been already.
At a hearing earlier this month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee argued that the migrants did not reach U.S. soil because the lighthouse did not qualify as American territory under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.
"The closest dry land is seven miles away. The U.S. Coast Guard reviewed the situation and determined the light tower was in the water, was not on dry land," Lee said.
Lawyers for the migrants put engineer Jose Abreu on the stand who testified about the structure and history of the 136-year-old lighthouse. He said it's a permanent structure within the territory of the United States.
Following the ruling, the Coast Guard issued a statement on the matter saying,
"On June 28, 2016, the Honorable Judge Darrin Gayles of the Southern District of Florida in the case of Movimiento Democracia v. Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, et. al, ruled that the Cuban migrants who sought refuge on American Shoal Light are "feet wet" and will be processed for repatriation in accordance with standard U.S. immigration policy. Individuals must have a visa or other permission to travel to U.S. and anyone located at sea will be returned to their country of origin in accordance with immigration laws. Safety of life at sea continues to be the Coast Guard's primary concern. The dangerous waters of the Florida Straits can be unforgiving for the unprepared on ill-advised and illegal voyages. Immigration policies have not changed and we continue to urge people not to take to the ocean in unseaworthy vessels. It is illegal and extremely dangerous."
The migrants have been on a Coast Guard cutter at sea since arriving last month.
Click here read to the judge's full order.
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