Six Cubans found in a stranded boat were released today from U.S. immigration custody, including a 14-year-old boy authorities say is a material witness in the case of two accused smugglers.
The Cubans were found Monday after the boat ran out of fuel off Key West. The Coast Guard towed it to shore, unaware that the teenager, his father and four others were hiding 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 do not are sent back.
The boy was not sent back because he is considered a witness in the smuggling case against boat owner Elizardo Ruiz Alvarez and Martin Mendez Diaz, officials said. The two Miami men were freed on bail.
The Cubans were released to relatives, said Ana Santiago, an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman.
The boy's mother in Cuba has identified him as Leonel Figueroa Orozco. She has said she wants him to remain in the United States with his father. Her pronouncement, along with his age, essentially averted a potential custody battle similar to the Elian Gonzalez case.
Elian, then 5, survived a boat sinking in November 1999 that killed his mother. He was sent to live with his Miami relatives, sparking a custody dispute and a federal raid that returned him to his father and Cuba.