Cuban Plane Crash Survivors Allowed to Stay

Nine Cubans who survived when their plane crashed into waters off the Florida coast appear to be on the path to permanent residency in the United States.

Just hours after being ferried to U.S. soil for medical assessments, six of the survivors were escorted today to the Krome Detention Center in Miami, where they were interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

As for the other three, Rodolfo Fuentes, 36, and his wife Liliana Ponzoa remain in a Key West hospital, according to relatives. Their 6-year-old son visited a local mall with his grandparents (see sidebar, below).

A 10th person was killed in the crash.

The survivors can expect to remain in the United States after their initial interview, the INS said. “Most likely what will happen — barring any criminal record — is that they will be paroled,” said agency spokeswoman Maria Cardona.

The 1966 U.S.-Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who reach American soil the right to petition for asylum and testify at a hearing without being subjected to a “credible fear” test that political asylum seekers from countries other than Cuba must undergo under U.S. immigration regulations.

The Cuban government claims the Soviet-era plane was stolen when it took off Tuesday from a remote airfield in Cuba. Relatives of the crash survivors say they escaped to seek asylum in the United States. Cuban authorities had originally called the incident a hijacking, but the FBI concluded today the flight was not, eliminating a threat of criminal prosecution.

Now that the Cubans are on American soil, they can apply for residency within a year after they are paroled.

A Medical Decision

There had been a question mark over whether the Cubans would be allowed to stay. The case in many ways seemed reminiscent ot the tug of war over Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban castaway who became the focus of a custody battle between his relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba.

In some cases, those picked up at sea are returned to Cuba, but the plane crash survivors, who had been rescued by a U.S. cargo ship and later transferred to a Coast Guard cutter, were brought ashore in Florida for medical exams.

“We just want to be prudent, want to make sure they were getting everything they needed,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr.

But one foreign policy expert says that for the Coast Guard to go into international waters to retrieve the Cubans went against U.S. law and undermined immigration agreements with Cuba aimed at putting an end to the mass migrations of the 1980s.

“The whole thing is a farce,” said Wayne Smith, Cuba project director of the Center for International Policy. “The U.S. has not responsibility at all for them. They went down in international waters there is no reason for the U.S. to get involved.

“The Cubans will begin to say if you are not living up to your agreement, we will let anyone who wants to leave, leave,” Smith said.

Complicating Matters

The arrivals of these Cubans is expected to complicate talks, which started today in New York, on the status of immigration policies between the two countries.

Cuban authorities have demanded the return of the nine survivors and the return of the allegedly stolen plane.

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