U.S. immigration authorities say 20 Cubans rescued in the Florida Straits will be allowed to remain in the United States.

U.S. policy dictates that Cubans who reach U.S. soil may stay, but those intercepted at sea are repatriated to Cuba.

The 20 Cubans in question were plucked from waters 30 kilometers south of Key West, Florida - far from dry land. But they have been granted an exemption from the so called "wet foot-dry foot" policy because they are needed as witnesses. Federal officials intend to prosecute the smugglers who brought them from Cuba.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Dan Kane said Friday the illegal immigrants and the alleged smugglers were taken to an INS facility outside Miami late Thursday. "Twenty Cuban migrants were brought to Krome Detention Center as material witnesses," he said, "and two [suspects] were brought as alleged smugglers, subject to prosecution by the U.S. Attorney in Miami."

A total of 26 people are believed to have been smuggled from Cuba aboard a nine meter speedboat. The overcrowded vessel capsized early Tuesday in rough seas and torrential rains. Hours later, a commercial freighter passing by notified the Coast Guard. Twenty-two people were rescued, including two alleged smugglers. Of the six Cubans lost at sea, only one body has been recovered so far.

INS spokesman Kane said there is ample justification for allowing the Cubans to remain in the United States. "Every case is different, and every case is judged on a case-by-case basis," he noted. "Given the tragic elements involved, the fact that people lost their lives, they were brought in as material witnesses. They are here on U.S. soil. The United States Government is not going to send them back to Cuba. We had a smuggling operation going on here. One of our top priorities is to stop the smuggling of immigrants from Cuba and every nation."

Mr. Kane added that the loss of life in the Florida Straits illustrates the need for cracking down on the smuggling of human cargo. "We have treacherous waters in the Florida Straits," he said. "Smugglers care about one thing: the almighty dollar. They do not care about the health and safety of the people in their boats. They care about filling that boat up - in many cases, overloading the boats."

Smugglers are believed to charge as much as $8,000 per person to ferry people from Cuba. Often the fees are paid by relatives who already live in the United States.