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INS Releases Six Cuban Immigrants

November 30, 2002

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MIAMI (AP) _ Six Cubans found in a stranded boat were released Friday 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 teen, 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 don’t 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 Friday on bail.

Speaking to reporters about the Cubans, Diaz said Friday: ``They are in a land of liberty and we did it for them.″

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 Orozcohas. She has said she wants him to remain in the United States with his father. Her pronouncement, along with his age, essentially prevented the possibility of another 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 several months later.

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