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Four Cuban rowers at Ontario event reportedly defect to U.S.

Four Cuban rowers taking part in the Pan American Games in St. Catharines, Ont., have defected to the United States, according to Canadian news organizations.

Juan Carlos Reyes, coach of the Cuban rowing team, said two of his oarsmen, Leosmel Ramos and Wilber Turro, withdrew before the Games on Saturday, while two others, Manuel Suarez and Orlando Sortolongo, took part in earlier races and then dropped out.

At this point, it’s not known whether the four men crossed into the United States in Buffalo or another border crossing. The Pan Am Games are based in Toronto, but the rowing venue is in St. Catharines. “We have received news that they are in the U.S.,” Reyes told the St. Catharines Standard through a translator.

Reyes said the men are seeking asylum here. “We suppose that is the case,” he told the Standard. “There are laws that benefit Cubans, and they are actually encouraged to do that type of thing. In that sense, we are special. We are the only country that is allowed to do that.”

If the men seek asylum, a local immigration lawyer said, they stand a good chance of success because of an immigration benefit granted only to Cubans. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans can be granted asylum if they can prove they have been in the United States for at least a year, even if that year is spent in custody.

Sophie Feal, an immigration lawyer with the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, said the immigration benefit is unique to Cubans and is the most common method used by Cubans seeking to move here.

“It’s an extraordinary benefit that no one else gets,” Feal said. “We see this over and over again with Cubans.”

The unusual protection may also explain why so many Cubans have defected from Canada in recent years.

In 2012, three Cuban soccer players defected to the United States shortly before a World Cup qualifying match in Toronto. The year before, two members of the Cuban women’s soccer team playing an Olympic qualifying match in Vancouver, British Columbia, also defected to the United States.

Reyes believes that the athletes who left the team in St. Catharines this week received help from Cubans living here. “We’re not aware there are Canadians who are doing these things,” he said. “We think these are Cubans who live in the U.S.”

If the four rowers did cross at one of the bridges in Buffalo, Niagara Falls or Lewiston, they would probably be taken into custody and housed at the Federal Detention Center in Batavia until a hearing is held.

“There are tons of variables,” said Matthew L. Kolken, a Buffalo immigration lawyer. “But they would probably be taken into custody.”

Like Feal, Kolken pointed to the Cuban Adjustment Act and its unique protections for Cubans seeking U.S. asylum. If that avenue proves unsuccessful, the Cubans also could seek asylum through the Safe Third Country Agreement between the United States and Canada.

Under that agreement, most asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the country where they land first. In this case, that would be Canada.

There are several exceptions, including asylum seekers who have family members in the United States.