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Judge orders delay for 3 Cubans in Buick boat

This was the Cubans' second attempt to reach the U.S. in a converted land vehicle.

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Two Cubans who tried to sail to Florida in a truck last year are making another attempt, this time piloting a seagoing 1950s-era Buick. CNN's Lucia Newman reports (February 5)
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MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) -- A U.S. federal judge ordered Friday that three of the 11 Cubans who tried to sail to Florida in a boat made from an old Buick car not be sent home at least until Monday afternoon.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno was responding to a motion filed in court by a Cuban American exile group seeking an injunction to stop the group from being repatriated.

The Cubans, currently being held on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter at sea after being stopped by the Coast Guard in the Florida Straits Tuesday as they tried to make the 90-mile crossing from the communist island to Florida in their green 1959 Buick remodeled as a boat.

Moreno's order applied only to a family of three -- Luis Grass, his wife and son -- and not to the other eight on board the Buick. In theory, that means those eight could be repatriated at any time.

Moreno said he wanted time to know whether he had any jurisdiction in the case and asked for the plaintiffs to resubmit an amended case to the court. He set another hearing on the case for 3 p.m. EST on Monday.

He said the government should not send Grass and his family back to Cuba until at least 5 p.m. EST that day, and added this was reasonable in that the government probably would not have sent them home by this time even without his order.

When Cuban migrants are caught at sea, they are generally taken aboard a Coast Guard cutter for interviews. They are then repatriated unless they can make a case for political asylum.

Second attempt for group

Images of the group motoring through the water in their stately Buick, first shown on local television stations, captured the imagination of Miami's large Cuban American community, not least because four of the 11 people on board had tried a similar voyage on a modified 1951 Chevy truck last July, only to be picked up and sent home.

The Democracy Movement, an exile group, went to court on behalf of the Buick rafters Thursday, seeking an injunction to prevent the group from being returned home.

Grass was one of those who made the journey on the Chevy truck. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that Grass and his family had been interviewed for a visa to the United States recently and possibly were on the verge of being granted visas.

The Coast Guard has refused to comment on the case, saying the agency does not discuss migrant interdiction cases until they are resolved.

But Dexter Lee, a lawyer for the government, told the court that the 11 migrants from what he called "the Buick watercraft" were on a Coast Guard cutter.

Lee indicated in court that the government would not have repatriated the group until Sunday or Tuesday morning, so Moreno's order for a delay may end up having little practical effect.

Lee argued that the judge had no jurisdiction in the case, given that it involved foreign migrants out at sea.

But one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Luis Fernandez, said Moreno should consider the case because Grass and his family had been in the process of obtaining U.S. visas.

After the hearing, Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez called Moreno's order a step in the right direction.

"I urge President Bush to let my son stay in this country," said 71-year-old Pilar Rodriguez, Grass's mother, who was on a short visit to the United States when she heard her son had tried to leave Cuba, again.

"He can't stand it over there," she said.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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