Cuban-Americans challenge travel ban

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(Host) Several Cuban-American families are asking a federal court in Vermont to lift travel restrictions that prevent them from visiting relatives in Cuba.

Federal Judge William Sessions did not grant their request today.

But the judge did ask the U.S. government for more detail on the regulations. The judge wanted to know why rules that are meant to block dollars from flowing to Cuba, are also used to stop relatives from visiting family members who are sick or dying.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The lawsuit challenges a 2004 executive order that says Cuban-Americans can travel to Cuba only once every three years.

The families argue that the restrictions are unconstitutional – and that they don’t take into account the circumstances that families face. Those include the need to attend funerals, or visit elderly and ailing relatives.

Jared Carter is a Vermont resident who is married to a Cuban woman. He and his wife have been blocked from traveling to the island nation to celebrate their marriage with her aging grandparents.

(Carter) “The government has never been, and never should be, in the business of interfering in people’s family relationship. I mean that’s part of the order of liberty that the constitution was meant to protect, I believe.”

(Host) In court, the government defended the regulations by saying it has the right under the constitution to conduct foreign policy. And that right, said Deputy Attorney General John O’Quinn, includes the ability to limit travel to foreign countries.

O’Quinn warned that if the judge tossed out the travel restrictions, the government could go back to an even stricter embargo against Cuba that would block travel under any circumstances.

But Allen Gilbert of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says the travel regulations are too broad. He said the impact of the regulations go far beyond the government’s goal of limiting the flow of money to Cuba.

(Gilbert) The government can indeed sometimes restrict a fundamental constitutional liberty, but it has to have a really good reason in doing so. And it also has to have a solution to a problem that’s narrowly tailored. In other words if it wants to restrict travel to Cuba it has to explain why and it has to show that that policy is having the desired effect. We don’t think that’s happening in this case.

(Dillon) Gilbert said that because the rules restrict travel to one trip every three years, they don’t allow for emergency visits to sick relatives. And he said the rules don’t allow people to visit non-immediate family, such as aunts and uncles.

He said that the regulations blocked one of the Cuban Americans – Franklin County school superintendent Armando Vilaseca – from visiting his aunt who was sick with cancer.

(Gilbert) Well since the time the suit was filed in March, she has since died. He wasn’t even able to go back for the funeral and to grieve with the rest of his family.

(Dillon) Judge Sessions seemed particularly interested in the broad impact of the regulations. He asked both sides to file additional legal briefs. And he asked the government to look at whether rules that are meant to limit the flow of currency to Cuba are also having the effect of denying people the ability to visit sick relatives.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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