Friday, July 21, 2006

Migrants reunions bittersweet

Posted on Fri, Jul. 21, 2006

Migrants' reunions bittersweet
After days on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, 28 Cuban migrants were allowed
into Miami -- as witnesses in a case involving three men accused in a
fatal smuggling operation.

Making it to freedom Thursday meant little to the Cuban man whose wife
died of head injuries during a voyage to the United States -- the trip's
only casualty during a Coast Guard chase of a fast boat that federal
officials say was involved in a smuggling operation.

''Happy to make it to land? I would rather be dead,'' said Agustin
Uralde, 24, as he left the federal courthouse in Miami with relatives.

Uralde's mood was significantly darker than those of the other 27 Cuban
migrants who reunited with their families after being detained at sea on
a U.S. Coast Guard cutter since July 8.

Uralde lost the love of his life, relatives said. Amay Machado González,
24, one of the migrants, died after being tossed about the smugglers'
speeding boat two weeks ago, authorities say.

''This was too high a price to pay,'' Uralde said.

In bittersweet irony, her death allowed the others fleeing the communist
island to finally reach U.S. shores.

In a rare move, the migrants were brought ashore to serve as material
witnesses in the criminal case that charges three men with attempted
smuggling that caused González's death. The high-speed chase ended when
a Coast Guard officer fired two shots at the vessel's engine to disable it.

Odalys Conde was the first Cuban migrant to taste freedom at the
courthouse as she hugged and kissed her two teenage daughters, Yarenis
Carpio Conde, 14, and Yamila Carpio Conde, 16, who had been released
earlier in the day to relatives.

''I am so happy to be here,'' said Conde, who quickly took off a
government-issued khaki top she was wearing over a T-shirt. ``I didn't
want you girls to see me this way.''

Conde and the other migrants teared up, waved and blew kisses to
relatives who jammed into a courtroom in their first encounter since the
Cubans were intercepted.


The migrants were brought to court under exceptional legal
circumstances: They must now testify against the three men charged with
illegally attempting to bring them to Florida and causing González's death.

The migrants' first U.S. experience must have seemed surreal: A
magistrate judge granted them a $25,000 personal surety bond and
assigned them lawyers after peppering them with procedural questions
about their financial status -- questions that would not apply to Cubans
leaving a society where private ownership is nonexistent.

Do you own a home or other property? Do you have money in the bank? Can
you afford an attorney?

One man answered that he had ``300 Cuban pesos, about 12 American dollars.''

Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow gave the Cubans, now allowed to stay
because they touched U.S. soil, until Monday to provide cosigners for
their bond, contact numbers and addresses.

''That way, we can find you and you won't get in trouble with the U.S.
government,'' she said. ``And you don't want to be in trouble with the

The migrants' testimony before the grand jury or at trial is considered
vital to the U.S. government's prosecution of the three defendants, who
are being held without bond.


A federal grand jury in Key West could return an indictment against the
three men -- Rolando González Delgado, Heinrich Castillo Díaz and Yamil
González Rodríguez -- as early as today. The indictment is expected to
include new charges, including attempting to smuggle the migrants into
the United States for profit.

''This decision is the result of the unique circumstances of this
specific criminal matter,'' said interim U.S. Attorney R. Alexander
Acosta. ``[It] is a reflection of our determination to engage in a
complete investigation and a vigorous prosecution of all individuals
associated with this incident using all prosecutorial tools at our

As they were processed and freed Thursday night, the migrants were
reluctant to talk about the case, most brushing aside questions about
their deadly voyage.

''We would not have wanted this tragedy, but I don't want to talk about
it,'' Morelia Croes, 34, said as she hugged her twin, Rebeca, who had
become an outspoken supporter of the group in Miami.

Asked if the mission had been financed, Croes said: ''No, I did not pay
to come here.'' She said she would be ''happy'' to testify in the
criminal case if asked by federal prosecutors.

Relatives of the three alleged smugglers claim the men were fishing and
found the original group of migrants in a sinking boat in the Florida
Straits. They further claim the three men were related to some of the
migrants -- the pregnant wife of González Delgado was among those on
board the speed boat. Those relatives assert that it was a
not-for-profit smuggling operation.

The three defendants, first charged by criminal complaint on July 10,
are scheduled to enter pleas Monday. If convicted, they could face up to
life in prison.

The Monroe County medical examiner said González's death was caused by
head and other injuries that are consistent with someone tossed about
inside a boat.

''Smugglers often treat migrants as if they were human cargo, with
blatant disregard for individual life and safety,'' Acosta said. ``This
must stop.''


Bringing the migrants to the United States means they can stay in the
country. Under the U.S. ''wet foot/dry foot'' policy, most Cubans who
reach U.S. soil are permitted to remain while those interdicted at sea
are returned home.

The Bush administration has made other recent exceptions to the ''wet
foot/dry foot'' policy, including bringing in the parents of a
6-year-old Cuban boy who died during a smuggling attempt in October
2005. Most of the 29 survivors in that case were returned to Cuba.

Indeed, it is unusual for an entire group to be brought ashore to
provide evidence in a criminal smuggling case.

In 2001, immigration authorities allowed in Cubans rescued at sea after
a migrant smuggling tragedy, departing from a then-six-year policy of
repatriating migrants picked up offshore. A total of six migrants,
including three children, died in the crossing, according to authorities.

The exception was made for the 20 survivors to help U.S. authorities
investigate and prosecute growing migrant-smuggling operations. They
were allowed in as material witnesses in the investigation against two
suspected smugglers, who were among those rescued.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, head of Cuban exile group Democracy Movement,
described the emotion Thursday morning when family members learned that
the 28 migrants were being allowed to stay.

''They were very happy, screaming and yelling, in the Cuban style,'' he

Miami Herald staff writer Andrea Torres and Miami Herald news partner
WFOR-CBS4 contributed to this report.

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