Armando Vilaseca is one of four plaintiffs challenging a federal order restricting Cuban-Americans from visiting relatives in Cuba -- a communist country the United States has tried to isolate for half a century.
"Just having the ability to maintain family relations over two governments a thousand miles away that are not having relations -- it's a challenge," he said.
The plaintiffs say their lawsuit is the first of its kind to challenge a four-year-old executive order. Cuban-Americans used to be able to visit family in Cuba once a year. But in 2004 an executive order limited visits to once every three years, and people could only visit immediate family. The idea was to limit the infusion of currency into the Communist country, but plaintiffs say this isn't about support for communism; it's about support for their own families.
Vilaseca joined the lawsuit in March, hoping he could visit Cuba before an elderly aunt died of cancer.
"I still hoped to have seen her one more time," he said, "but my story is one that's told tens of thousands of times throughout this country."
Attorneys for the federal government argued there is no constitutional right to travel abroad, and the government can restrict travel to achieve a foreign policy goal. They said travel to Cuba provides hard currency that supports Castro's Communist regime.
The judge will have to decide if that's enough of a reason to restrict people like Vilaseca from visiting their relatives.
"I understand the foreign policy issue, but our issue is very much the humanity issue," Vilaseca said. "The issue of person-to-person, the ability to visit cousins, aunts, godchildren, whoever, in Cuba."
The Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union says this case is being watched closely -- especially in areas like Massachusetts and Florida with large populations of Cuban-Americans.
"The restrictions are discriminating against a national group, in this case Cubans or Cuban-Americans, and basically, the Constitution says you really can't do that," explained Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU. "You can't discriminate against people of national origin in that way. The other thing it's doing is cutting down the constitutional liberty of being able to be with family members, without real justification for doing so. The Constitution can restrict freedoms, but it has to have a good reason."
Judge William Sessions has asked the lawyers for more information about how the order has been implemented. Supplemental memoranda are expected in the next 30 days. But Sessions said, "This is not something that's going to be expeditiously resolved."
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