The U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security have stepped up their watch of the Caribbean and Florida Straits to keep Cubans and Haitians from migrating to the U.S. by sea, officials said this week.
Coast Guard 7th District Commander Rear Adm. Eric Jones said Monday that the service is "monitoring any activity that may indicate increases in unsafe and illegal maritime migration in the Florida Straits," including boats leaving Florida to take supplies to support protests in Cuba.
He added that 20 people have died "in recent weeks" as the result of unsafe voyages.
"The transit is dangerous and unforgiving," Jones wrote in a statement released Monday via Twitter. "The Coast Guard and our federal partners maintain persistent and vigilant airborne and surface patrols in the Caribbean, including the Florida Straits, to ensure the safety of life at sea for all mariners. Please don't take to the sea."
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday the department sent three people as part of a U.S. delegation to Haiti in response to that government's request for support after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse last week.
The Coast Guard also has dispatched two cutters "to the coast of Haiti, in addition to three others already in nearby waters," he added.
"Our priority is to preserve and save lives," Mayorkas said in a news conference on maritime migrant interdiction operations. "The time is never right to attempt migration by sea. To those who risk their lives doing so, this risk is not worth taking. Allow me to be clear: If you take to the Sea, you will not come to the United States."
A spokeswoman for the 7th District said Wednesday, however, that the service maintains a continuous presence in the area and its current operations tempo in the Caribbean and Florida Straits could be described as "normal."
Public Affairs Specialist 1st Class Nicole Groll declined to name the cutters that are currently deployed to the region, citing operational security, but said all Coast Guard vessels in the area have a mission of "safety of life at sea."
"We always have at least one cutter and always at least one overflight of the Florida Straits," Groll said.
This fiscal year, the Coast Guard has intercepted 554 migrants from Cuba, up from 49 in fiscal 2020. The numbers are a marked decrease from fiscal 2016, the year before then-President Barack Obama ended the "wet foot, dry foot policy" that allowed Cubans who arrived on land in the U.S. without a visa to become permanent residents.
In 2016, 5,396 Cubans were picked up by the Coast Guard at sea and returned to Cuba.
On Saturday, the Fast Response Cutter Kathleen Moore repatriated 23 Cubans, having picked them up 15 miles south of Big Pine Key, 30 miles east of Key West.
The operation occurred as demonstrations erupted across Cuba, with residents protesting shortages of goods, electrical blackouts and the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayorkas said Tuesday that the U.S. "stands in solidarity with the Cuban people." But, he added, Cubans attempting to leave the island to reach the U.S. will not be allowed to enter.
"Migrants who do attempt to enter the United States by sea put their lives at incredible risk. The waters in the straits of Florida in the Caribbean are dangerous, especially now as we have entered hurricane season. People will die," he said.
In May, the government gave Haitians temporary protected status for 18 months, meaning those currently in the U.S. may remain in the country if they meet eligibility requirements.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.