Immigration Issue Threatens GOP's Fla. Stronghold

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

MIAMI -- On the morning after Christmas, something akin to a miracle happened on the high seas between Miami and Key West, according to an interpretation of the event by U.S. immigration officials. Fifteen Cuban refugees essentially walked on water.

They clambered out of a ramshackle boat as it sank in the deep, dark Florida straits and clung to the rocky remains of an old bridge. Under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allows Cubans fleeing communism to reside in the United States only if they somehow reach dry land, the group appeared to have made it to freedom. But in an unusual interpretation of the rule, the Coast Guard said the partially demolished old Seven Mile Bridge no longer touched land, and therefore the 15 had wet feet.

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."

This is not the first time that the Cuban lobby has talked tough about switching its vote, but it caused enough of a scare among Republicans to prompt the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) to deplore the Coast Guard's decision to dispatch the refugees back to Cuba, and put in calls to the White House.

The White House responded last week by agreeing to meet with a delegation of Cuban lawmakers, lawyers and advocates. A State Department official confirmed that it would participate, along with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice.

At the same time, U.S. attorneys are fighting a lawsuit filed by relatives of the 15 deportees against the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard. A federal judge who is presiding over the case expressed disbelief at the government's argument that the old Seven Mile Bridge is not part of American soil, but also said the issue may be moot, because the 15 Cubans were sent home and are no longer under the jurisdiction of the court.

U.S. District Court Judge Federico A. Moreno said on Wednesday that he will make a decision on the case at the end of the month.

These events come as the immigration issue is taking center stage in the American political debate. Next month, the Senate is expected to begin debating various immigration bills that would allow foreign nationals to work temporarily in the United States under strict conditions. At the same time, many Republicans, as well as Democrats, are pressing for a harder line toward illegal immigrants.

Cubans say they have a special status as exiles from the only communist nation in the Western Hemisphere and as a conservative bloc of voters who helped Republicans maintain a political majority in Washington.

Hernandez said his organization understands that the United States cannot have 35,000 Cubans entering the country each year, as in 1994, when the Clinton administration decided to implement the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. It allows Cubans into the country if they step on land but sends them home, where they would likely face persecution, if the Coast Guard intercepts their boats at sea.

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