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Cuban-Americans Lash Out at Republicans

January 11, 2006

MIAMI (AP) _ When 15 Cubans fleeing their homeland landed on an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys, they inadvertently found themselves in an uncomfortable legal spotlight _ one the Republican Party is sharing.

The plight of the immigrants _ deported Monday back to Cuba _ has reopened the bitter debate over the government’s immigration policy and angered South Florida’s heavily Republican Cuban exile community.

``This will have an effect of reducing the numbers of Cuban-American voters that would blindly follow a Republican candidate,″ Cuban American National Foundation President Pepe Hernandez said. ``Cubans are going to realize that both parties come when they need us but tend to forget our pledges when they don’t.″

The migrants were returned after the government concluded that the partially collapsed bridge they landed on _ which no longer connects to any of the Keys _ did not count as dry land.

Under the current ``wet-foot, dry-foot″ policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain in the United States. Those stopped at sea are sent home.

Coming on the heels of more stringent deportation policies for Cuban migrants, and amid a wave of GOP calls for tighter immigration enforcement, some community leaders wondered whether the deportation will cost the party support among one of its staunchest bases.

``It was a total abuse, how all these Cubans were treated. They landed on our territory only so that we can send them back to hell,″ said Armando de Cristo, a city employee, 66, who fled Cuba 30 years ago.

Florida Congressional representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, all Cuban-American Republicans, urged the White House on Tuesday to support a review of the policy.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez went a step further, calling for a broader overhaul of the U.S.-Cuba immigration policy. ``The policy is wrong and it ought to be changed,″ he said.

The issue has become more thorny for Republicans as the party grows increasingly split over immigration, said Damian Fernandez, head of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute in Miami.

``I think that at some point, the dissonance between rhetoric and practice will have some sort of result, whether it’s a reformulation of the policy or a political fallout _ with people’s allegiance to the Republican party eroded,″ Fernandez said.

In recent years, the wet-dry policy has become more stringent, and the number of Cubans attempting to immigrate has continued to rise, Fernandez said. More than 2,700 Cubans were stopped by the Coast Guard in 2005, more than twice the number stopped in 2004.

Republicans have enjoyed solid Cuban-American support as far back as the Kennedy administration, which many exiles blamed for the failure of the Bay of Pigs.

The forced removal of Elian Gonzalez brought Cuban voters to the polls in record numbers to vote for President Bush because they were unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration’s handling of the case.

Elian, now 11, set off a seven-month custody battle after he was rescued off the Florida coast in 1999. His mother died at sea, and his Miami relatives and Cuban exile groups fought to prevent his return to Cuba. He was reunited with his father in Cuba after an armed federal raid April 22, 2000, on his relatives’ home.

Cuban-American activists said they hoped the latest incident will spark a review of the wet-foot, dry-foot rule, which was established in 1995 as a way to stem a massive wave of Haitians and Cuban immigrants, while still offering a safe harbor for Cubans who reached U.S. shores.

Hernandez said local Cuban-American leaders are trying to work with Washington to revise the policy rather than revert to the protests that became a staple of the Elian crisis.

``Instead of simply screaming about how unjust this is, we should try to impose a solution,″ Hernandez said.

As he watched friends play dominos in Little Havana on Tuesday, Alberto Cuervo, 57, said he was angered at the government, but admitted the latest incident was unlikely to affect the community’s vote.

``We tend to forget very quickly,″ he said.

___

Associated Press Writer Damian Grass contributed to this report.

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