Six Cubans jumped from a 14-foot rowboat about 150 yards from shore in a desperate attempt to reach the United States today, but only two made it to land, dodging Coast Guard and police boats.
Under U.S. policy, Cubans who reach American shores are allowed to stay and eventually get work permits, but those found at sea -- even a few yards offshore -- are usually returned immediately to Cuba.
But later tonight -- after the scene unfolded on television and a large crowd gathered to support the refugees -- the Coast Guard announced it would not return them to Cuba, an apparent reversal of standard policy. Even the four who never made it to shore were to be taken to an immigration center, where they will be checked for criminal records and likely released while applying for asylum.
A crowd gathered on the beach and cheered the six refugees earlier in the afternoon as they frantically changed directions each time one of the four Coast Guard and police boats neared.
As two men reached shore in the small community of Surfside near Miami Beach, some people cursed and screamed at police and the Coast Guard while offering words of support to the refugees.
One of the Cubans who made it on the beach was quickly surrounded by several police officers. As the officers were about to grab him, he darted and then dove forward, landing face down in the sand. He was handcuffed as waves receded past his feet.
The four others were taken into custody by the Coast Guard.
About an hour later, protesters gathered outside the Coast Guard station in Miami Beach, waving Cuban flags and yelling "You almost killed them" and "Free them."
An estimated 1,000 protesters shut down a causeway to Miami Beach at rush hour, marching across with Cuban flags and signs saying "Free Cuba."
A Coast Guard spokesman said the agency will investigate how it dealt with the Cuban refugees.