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Judge says rejecting 15 Cubans was wrong

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the government acted unreasonably when it sent home 15 Cubans who made it to an abandoned Keys bridge under the presumption they weren't actually on U.S. soil.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ordered federal officials to "use their best efforts" to help the migrants return to the United States.

One of the 15 migrants, Elizabeth Hernandez, 23, spoke with the Associated Press by telephone Tuesday evening from her family's home in Matanza, Cuba, where she was celebrating the decision.

"I am so happy," she said. "I always had hope I would be able to return."

While Moreno sympathized with the difficulty the U.S. Coast Guard faces in making split-second decisions at sea, he wrote, "those Cuban refugees who reached American soil in early January 2006 were removed to Cuba illegally."

But the judge made clear his ruling was limited in scope.

"The court is not ruling on the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, of the "wet foot/dry foot' policy," Moreno wrote in his ruling.

Under that controversial policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay, while those stopped at sea are sent back.

In this case, all sides agreed the group was not stopped at sea, but the government said the old bridge didn't count as dry land because chunks of it are missing and it no longer connects to land.

"We're very gratified by the judge's decision," said Kendall Coffey, an attorney for the migrants and their families.

"Right now they're stigmatized as undesirables and told they're not wanted in Cuba. They're very much wanted here, and we hope they'll be allowed to return."

It is unclear whether Cuban President Fidel Castro would allow the 15 to leave.

But Mercedes Hernandez, the aunt of Elizabeth Hernandez, said she was confident Hernandez would be allowed to leave.

"I am so happy," she said.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, a Cuban-American advocacy group, called the judge's ruling a vindication for the migrants.

"Really, it is a vindication for all immigrants," said Sanchez, who waged an 11-day hunger strike to protest the group's return to Cuba.

A message left Tuesday for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami was not immediately returned.

The migrants landed on pilings along a nearly 3-mile span of the former bridge Jan. 4, as their small boat began to take on water. Had they landed 100 yards away on the new bridge, the Coast Guard would likely have allowed them to stay.