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Floating Car Refugees Await Ruling

Relatives of 11 Cubans found at sea in a vintage car converted into a boat awaited word on their fate Thursday, as Cuban-American leaders urged the U.S. government not to send the group back to their homeland.

While the U.S. Coast Guard won't comment on interdictions, Cuban exile activists say the group found Tuesday on a seagoing 1950s-era Buick were still being held at sea until a decision was made on whether to send them home.

The group, discovered 10 miles from Marathon in the Florida Keys, faces a likely return to Cuba under U.S. immigration policy.

After the Cubans were found, the Coast Guard sank the vessel, said Alex Cruz, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The Republican congresswoman, a Cuban exile, requested on Wednesday that the vessel be saved as a piece of history.

The Coast Guard, which used machine gun fire to sink another vehicle-powered barge that tried to reach U.S. shores in July, refused Thursday to confirm the status of the tail-finned Buick.

Pilar Rodriguez, mother of Luis Grass Rodriguez, who helped transform the car into a boat, told The Associated Press she hoped the U.S. government would allow him to enter the country. She said her son has a U.S.-issued visa to enter legally but hasn't been allowed to leave Cuba by conventional means.

"All we can do is wait and hope," said Rodriguez, who arrived in Miami from Cuba last month on a tourist visa and plans to return in May. "He doesn't like the political system there."

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said his group had appealed to the U.S. State Department "in hopes they would give some humanitarian consideration" to the group, which includes five children.

The attempt was "a product of incredible ingenuity that is embarrassing to the regime," Garcia said Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Miami, has also asked the State Department to allow Grass, his wife and son to enter the United States.

A State Department official declined comment Thursday.

Grass and another man on the boat, Marciel Basanta Lopez, had already failed in a previous effort to reach the United States in a similar vessel.

The two were sent back to Cuba in July after they failed to reach Florida in a 1951 Chevy pickup converted into a pontoon boat. They had been joined by 10 other people on that trip.

Under U.S. immigration policy, Cubans who reach U.S. shores generally are allowed to stay while those caught at sea are usually returned. Immigration officials interview Cubans intercepted at sea to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution at home, but most are still returned.

By Adrian Sainz

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