-- A 14-year-old Cuban boy found in a boat off the Florida coast will be allowed to stay in the United States because he may testify against his accused smugglers, federal officials said today.
The 21-foot boat ran out of fuel Monday off Key West. The Coast Guard towed it to shore, unaware that the boy, his father and four other Cubans were inside.
After the rescue, the adults scampered onto a dock while the boy remained on board. Under government policy, Cubans who make it to shore are generally allowed to stay in the United States, while those who don't are sent back.
The teenager will be allowed to stay because the Justice Department is treating him as a material witness in a smuggling case against two of the men on the boat, said Jackie Becerra, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami.
Boat owner Elizardo Ruiz Alvarez and Martin Mendez Diaz, two Miami Cubans, are charged with immigrant smuggling. The charge carries a possible five-year sentence on conviction.
Immigration officials would not disclose the boy's whereabouts.
Grisel Ybarra, a lawyer representing the boy, said he is being held at a complex for juveniles. Ybarra said she wants the boy to be released to relatives and hopes he won't be used as a material witness.
Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz said the six Cubans were from Havana and Holguin, Cuba.
The adults on the boat told investigators they set off from Cuba on their own and were picked up by the boat. But the boy said the boat picked up the group in Cuba, a Justice Department official in Washington said.
The case was announced Tuesday, the third anniversary of the arrival of Elian Gonzalez. It evoked comparisons to that case because of questions about the 14-year-old's custody.
Elian was returned to his father in Cuba after a raid at the home of his Miami relatives in April 2000.