U.S. Policy on Cuban Refugees Under Fire Cuban Americans in Miami are increasingly demanding the end of the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that allows the Coast Guard to send refugees back to Cuba if they don't set foot on U.S. soil. Cuban exile groups are starting a lobbying campaign that they hope will go directly to President Bush.
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U.S. Policy on Cuban Refugees Under Fire

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U.S. Policy on Cuban Refugees Under Fire

U.S. Policy on Cuban Refugees Under Fire

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELLE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michelle Norris. Today in Miami a Cuban-American man ended his hunger strike after the Bush Administration agreed to meet with Cuban-American leaders about immigration policy. They want the administration to change the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot rule that has been used to limit Cuban immigration to America.

NPR's Phillip Davis reports.

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

Ramon Sal Sanchez, the head of a group called the Cuban Democracy Movement, launched his hunger strike January 7th under a tent on Southwest 8th Street, or as it's called here, Calle Ocho.

Leader RAMON SAL SANCHEZ (Cuban Democracy Movement): I began the hunger strike to respectfully appeal to the conscious of the President of the United States through the power, through the, through the instrument of nonviolence to listen to this community to present our concerns and suggestions to make more humane the wet-foot, dry-foot policy.

DAVIS: Sanchez was reflecting the anger many felt here after 15 Cuban migrants were sent back to Cuba earlier this month even though they had made it across the Florida Straights to an abandoned railroad bridge in the Florida Keys. But federal officials said since the bridge didn't connect to the land, the migrants were still technically at sea. They were sent back to Cuba.

It was a strict interpretation of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy in which Cuban migrants who make it on to actual U.S. territory are allowed to stay, while those who are apprehended at sea are turned back.

Now, Cuban-American's have preferential treatment when they enter the U.S. Any Cuban who makes it into the U.S. usually can automatically gain a residency permit after a year, but the wet-foot, dry-foot rule, in place since 1995, has rankled, especially since TV stations often show Cuban migrants trying to elude big Coast Guard ships in a desperate attempt to get to dry land.

William Sanchez is a lawyer with the Democracy Movement. He said the rule needs to change because migrants apprehended by the Coast Guard don't get a good opportunity to argue their case.

Attorney WILLIAM SANCHEZ (Democracy Movement): Over 97 percent of the Cubans and 99 percent of the Asians are being sent back. I think that process has got to be looked at because, are they really given a fair opportunity on the high seas?

DAVIS: Over the past few days, pressure has increased on the Bush Administration to change, or at least review, the policy. Cuban-American legislators, including Florida Senator Mel Martinez, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart and even the president's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, have denounced the rule and crowds were swelling in front of the hunger striker's tent.

Damian Fernandez, Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University here, says this is a tough issue for the Bush Administration.

Director DAMIAN FERNANDEZ (Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University): While the Cuban-Americans tend to be overwhelmingly Republican and our representatives in Congress are also Republican, other parts of the party are very much anti-immigration and demanding greater enforcement of border controls.

DAVIS: It appears the message is getting through. Yesterday, White House Spokesman, Scott McClellan said the Administration had no intention of changing the wet-foot, dry-foot rule, but today the Administration announced a different line.

Eric Watnick is Deputy Spokesman of the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Deputy Spokesman ERIC WATNICK (Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, State Department): The Administration has reached out to representatives of the Cuban-American community to express our interest in hearing and understanding their concerns about U.S. migration policy toward Cuba.

DAVIS: Out on Calle Ocho, a crowd of admirers got the word from Ramon Sal Sanchez.

SANCHEZ: God has heard our prayers and the doors have been opened in Washington for the government of the United States to listen to all our concerns and suggestions about the wet-foot, dry-foot policy.

DAVIS: A few minutes later, he boarded an ambulance that took him to a nearby hospital for medical care and something to eat, his supporters chanting the Cuban National Anthem behind him.

Phillip Davis, NPR News, Miami.

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