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May 16, 2008, MIAMI and MONTPELIER, Vt. - The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), along with American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in Florida, Vermont and Massachusetts, today filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in Vilaseca v. U.S. Department of Treasury, a federal lawsuit in Vermont challenging severe restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on travel to visit close family members in Cuba.
The lawsuit, on behalf of four individuals who have current urgent needs to visit with elderly or ill relatives, is the first challenge to the U.S. government’s family visit restrictions. The regulations, announced in 2004, prohibit Americans from visiting close family members in Cuba more than once every three years, instead of every year as had been the case for many years, even in emergency humanitarian situations. For the first time, the regulations also prevent Americans from visiting aunts, uncles or cousins at all. Anyone who violates the new rules could face fines of up to $1 million and up to ten years in jail.
“The ability of Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba, especially at crucial moments in the history of the family such as the celebration of marriages, or visiting a sick relative in a hospital, or attending a relative’s funeral, is essential to maintain family integrity,” said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida Executive Director. “The Government of the United States should not be in the business of breaking up families by restricting their ability to visit each other. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, clearly states that ‘Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’”
“Cuban-Americans with family members in Cuba should be able to visit their relatives – particularly under demanding situations such as death and illness,” Simon added. “If the government’s goal is to end the communist regime in Cuba and progress toward a more democratic society, the answer is to encourage open dialogue, not shut it down. Further isolating Cuba prevents more contact with dissident groups that will foster the growth of democratic institutions. The government is standing in the way of progress for Cubans here in the U.S. and in Cuba.”
“The Cuba travel ban has been in place for 45 years and has been utterly ineffective in bringing regime change, but highly effective in harming both the Cuban and the American people,” noted CCR attorney Darius Charney. “The harshness of the family travel restrictions are purely punitive: they hurt families and have little support in the Cuban-American community.”
The ACLU affiliates and CCR argue that the due process right to preserve family relationships is deeply rooted in the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Further, their brief points to international human rights law that confirms that the preservation of family relationships is “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of four individuals, Armando Vilaseca, Yurisleidis Leyva Mora, Jared Kingsbury Carter, and Maricel Lucero Keniston, all of whom reside in Vermont. The plaintiffs are asking the court to enter an injunction requiring the Government to cease enforcement of the “Family Visit Regulations.” Upon issuance of such an order, the plaintiffs and all Cuban-Americans, would be able to resume annual travel to Cuba to visit family.
The amicus brief was filed today in the United States District Court of Vermont. Although it was filed in Vermont, the result of the lawsuit will have the greatest impact in Florida, where most Cuban-Americans reside.
The ACLU acknowledges and is grateful to the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP for their hard work with the three ACLU affiliates and CCR.
The amicus brief was prepared James L. Messenger, Malick W. Ghachem, Okey Onyejekwe, Wasif Qureshi and Arthur D’Andrea, all of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, which represented the groups pro bono. Other lawyers on the brief include Mitchell L. Pearl, of Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP in Burlington, VT; Randall Marshall, ACLU of Florida Legal Director, John Reinstein and Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts; and Darius Charney, Center for Constitutional Rights.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.