(CNN)The TV news helicopter footage showed scenes from a standoff.
A boatload of Cuban migrants scaled a 136-year-old lighthouse off the Florida Keys. The U.S. Coast Guard convinced them to come down.
Maria Elena Lopez played the video over and over, filled with relief -- and questions. She spotted her son's dark blue T-shirt. She watched him brush his hand across his face.
Is he OK? When was the last time he ate? When would she have a chance to see him again?
"Finally," she thought to herself, "I will have him here with me."
That was more than five weeks ago. And the mother and son are still hundreds of miles apart.
She's at home in Jacksonville, Florida. Her son, Alexander Vergara Lopez, and the other 23 Cubans who climbed the American Shoal Lighthouse last month are now aboard a Coast Guard cutter, waiting for a federal judge to decide their fate.
An answer is expected any day now in a fierce legal battle that centers on a key question: Does the lighthouse count as "dry land"?
Making their case
The judge's ruling will determine whether the migrants can stay in the United States or whether authorities must send them back to Cuba.
The lighthouse the migrants climbed is about 6.5 miles south of Sugarloaf Key, some 15 miles east of Key West in the Florida island chain.
In a federal lawsuit, attorneys representing the migrants point to the decades-old "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which gives Cubans who've set foot on American soil the chance to stay in the United States.
"These refugees landed and disembarked on a U.S. federal building that was on U.S. federal property. And that constituted a landing with feet that were literally -- and legally -- dry feet," lawyer Kendall Coffey said.
The case, they say, is similar to another from a decade ago, when a judge ruled that a group of Cubans who landed on an abandoned bridge in the Florida Keys could stay.
But lawyers for the federal government have a different take.
The lighthouse is U.S. property, they argue, but not U.S. territory. And climbing up an offshore lighthouse, they say, isn't the same as landing in America.
"Passengers traveling to the United States do not request to be dropped off at lighthouses located 6.5 nautical miles from shore," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee argued in court documents.
The migrants, he said, jumped into the water and swam to the lighthouse as the Coast Guard interrupted "their attempt at illegal entry into the United States."
The migrants "are not applicants for admission to the United States, since they have not come ashore, or reached dry land," Lee said.
It may sound simple on the surface. But the case is so complicated that U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles said in court that he'd need weeks to make his decision.
A ruling in the case is expected this week, according to Movimiento Democracia, the Miami-based group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the detained Cubans.
Usually migrants intercepted at sea are swiftly sent back to their home countries, the Coast Guard says. But this group remains in custody while their case plays out in court.
"They are still aboard a Coast Guard cutter," U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney told CNN. "No determination has been made on what's going to happen with them."
Barney said he couldn't disclose the name of the boat or its location.
Family members haven't been able to talk the 24 migrants while they're detained, Coffey said, though they've been able to get some updates from a Florida congressman's office.
Lopez says she's grateful the judge is taking time to weigh the case, but worried about her son.
"I don't know what the boat is like, even though they tell me that they're taking care of them," she says.
'I cried with happiness'
Lopez, 50, said it's been almost a year since she last hugged her 26-year-old son. The last time they saw each other, she was flying out of Cuba, bound for the United States with a fiancee visa, which allowed her to travel but not to bring family with her.
Since then, she said, they've talked on the phone almost daily. He told her he planned to reunite with her soon.
"I never imagined it would be like this," Lopez said.
When she learned he'd joined a group from their town and hopped on a makeshift boat bound for the United States, she worried for days about the dangerous journey. The video of him in the lighthouse, she said, brought her hope.
It's a feeling relatives of other migrants share.
"I cried with happiness, seeing that he didn't drown, that he hadn't disappeared," said Graciela Infante, a 60-year-old custodian in Cape Coral, Florida.
She recognized her 24-year-old nephew, Nestor, wearing a white baseball cap in the video footage.
While family members wait for the judge's decision, she said, they've been keeping in touch in an online forum.
Some are still trying to confirm whether their loved ones are in the lighthouse group. Others worry what will happen if they're still detained on the boat while a hurricane hits. Recently, Infante said, a panicked mother voiced her fears about what could happen to her son if he gets sent back to Cuba.
"We tried to encourage her," Infante said, "to tell her to have faith in this judge."
The lighthouse's gleaming red frame stands out against the bright blue-green waters off Florida's coast.
Crews finished building it in 1880, screwing it into a reef where it sat in 4-foot-deep water. It's still operational, according to the Coast Guard, with a light visible from 16 miles away on a clear night.
It's been years since a caretaker lived inside. But last month, many of the Cuban migrants stood for hours on the platform beside the one-time residence, 40 feet above the water.
This isn't the 109-foot-tall iron structure's first brush with Cuban migrants, according to Kraig Anderson, who runs a website dedicated to lighthouses and their history.
When throngs of refugees left the island in 1980, according to the site, the Coast Guard began using the American Shoal Lighthouse as a lookout tower as the number of calls to respond to rafters in distress skyrocketed.
Setting a precedent?
The case has implications beyond the Florida courtroom where lawyers squared off earlier this month, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at NYU School of Law.
"The U.S. government does not want this case to be a foothold for a surge in future migration," Chishti said.
The number of Cubans coming to the United States is already on the rise. It's a spike, analysts say, that's fueled largely by fears that U.S. immigration policies that favor Cubans could be on the verge of changing now that relations between the two countries are on the mend.
While immigrants from other countries seeking asylum in the United States often struggle to make their case in court, Cubans don't have to jump over the same hurdles. The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed in 1966, gives any Cuban who sets foot in the United States permission to enter. After a year and a day in the country, they're eligible to apply for a green card.
Other government policies grant them benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and work permits soon after their arrival.
"They never know when the door may close," Chishti said. "Many of them are not taking any chances."
More than 35,600 Cubans have arrived at U.S. ports of entry since October 1, and the numbers show no sign of slowing.
"There is a massive exodus taking place," says Ramon Saul Sanchez, who leads Movimiento Democracia.
But the migration, he said, is fueled by oppression in Cuba.
"They decided to risk their lives. Those risks are decided by thousands of people every year. It's not something to take lightly," he said. "People don't come here just to eat well. ... There's a lot of other things that are happening there."
Holding out hope
Lopez had a good feeling when she went to Miami for a hearing and saw the face of the judge who will decide her son's fate.
"He was smiling," she says. "I had so much hope."
While she awaits his ruling, she's starting to make plans.
She's already bought new clothes for her son. A purple T-shirt and a pair of tennis shoes are waiting for him in Jacksonville.
By now, she says, he must have worn the same clothes for so many days. She wanted to buy him more, but decided to wait. He looked thin in the video; she's not sure what size will fit him anymore.
She hopes they'll go shopping together soon.