As hundreds of Cuban migrants washed ashore on New Year’s Day in the Florida Keys, local officials complained to the state that their law enforcement resources were being stretched and overwhelmed.
At the time, no one other than U.S. authorities knew that, out to sea, the crisis was building.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which monitors the vast waters between Florida’s shorelines, the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti, had onboard its cutters more than 1,000 migrants — most of them Cuban, though there were some Haitians —, on the decks of its ships out at sea. Unlike those who’ve reached land over the course of this latest migrant surge, people stopped at sea have been sent back to their countries aboard Coast Guard cutters.
The Coast Guard had been making between 100 to 200 repatriations a day, but the Cuban government was marking the holidays, and the migrants aboard the cutters couldn’t be immediately taken back.
“That’s not a normal circumstance,” Rear Adm. Brendan C. McPherson, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District and director of the Homeland Security Task Force-Southeast, said about the number of migrants aboard his cutters.
“There was an increase in flow. You had more people leaving from Cuba over the holidays than you had prior to the holidays,” he said. “We conclude the reason is the same reason we couldn’t do the repatriations: the Cuban government is on holiday like anybody else.”
What unfolded on New Year’s Day, McPherson said, “was a confluence of events” that has continued to strain Coast Guard resources as the agency increases its vigilance on the ocean. Additional boats, aircraft and cutters, including the Coast Guard Cutter James, have recently been deployed to assist with patrols.
McPherson’s task force’s job is to coordinate the response of federal, local and state agencies. To drive home the point, Coast Guard officials say that between Dec. 30, 2022, and Jan. 2, the number of migrant interdictions, apprehensions and encounters made by the Task Force’s partners totaled 1,445.
“Some people may not realize that the state, the county and the local municipalities in the South Florida region have been a part of the task force from the beginning,” McPherson said. “They participate, they’re members of the task force, we coordinate, we synchronize our efforts.”
Earlier this month, as local agencies and the Border Patrol found themselves overwhelmed while responding to the influx of Cuban migrants, Gov. Ron DeSantis activated the Florida National Guard to help respond to the arrivals.
“We always have been and will continue to coordinate and synchronize with the state,” McPherson said. “The fact that the governor determined it was appropriate to declare an emergency and activate the National Guard, it’s his decision to make under their command and control, not ours. And as long as they’re working in the same space we are, we want to make sure that we’re de-conflicting and coordinating and synchronizing. That’s what we’re doing today.”
Since Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 5,183 Cubans at sea attempting to get to the United States. Meanwhile Border Patrol agents have encountered more than 240 landings.
The increase in Cubans intercepted at sea is expected to surpass the 6,182 who were repatriated as of Sept. 30, 2022, the end of that fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2021.
Meanwhile, U.S. authorities are also keeping a close eye on Haitians, whose deadly sea voyages have been stymied by a shortage of fuel in that country amid an ongoing political crisis and gang violence.
The number of Haitians interdicted at sea is far lower than Cubans — 1,244 so far this fiscal year — but the low numbers may be explained by the lack of fuel and the Coast Guard’s beefed up patrols in Haiti’s territorial waters and off the country’s northwest coastline.
Last year, when the federal fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, the number of Haitian interdictions at sea had surpassed 7,100, the highest number in almost two decades.
McPherson said it was this time last year when he and his crews began seeing the increase in the number of migrants from Cuba and Haiti.
“It was an early indicator that something was different, something was new,” he said. “We’ve been doing these types of operations for a long time and something had changed.”
Both Cuba and Haiti have been in the throes of humanitarian and economic crises that continue to deteriorate. In Cuba, where anti-government protests in July 2021 led to imprisonments, people are running both from government crackdowns and a disastrous economy. In Haiti, people are dealing with the political vacuum created by the July 7, 2021, assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, along with chronic fuel shortages, deepening hunger, rampant kidnappings and violent gangs.
Faced with such dire realities, nationals from both Caribbean nations have taken to the high seas.
“In August, it had continued to the level that we knew we were going to have to sustain this for a long period of time, or at least plan to,” McPherson said. “That’s when we elevated on August 21 to the next level of our planning under Operation Vigilant Sentry, our mass migration plan.”
Since then, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection as well as local agencies in the Florida Keys have been seeing a continued, and steady increase in migration from Cuba, which culminated with at least 10 landings in one day on New Year’s Day. More than 100 Haitians also later arrived by boat, landing in Key Largo.
“For other reasons, Haiti too has been challenged,” McPherson said. “So we started to see what I call waves of departures of Haitian vessels and that we continue to see to this day. Similar consequences, but they look different.”
In the case of Cubans, it’s a perilous voyage in makeshift rafts sometimes made of tires or pieces of wood tied together. For Haitians, the journey is much longer, lasting usually days. Though landings are less frequent than for Cubans, Haitian migrants are usually traveling in overcrowded, leaking sailboats.
Another difference is how the trips unfold. While in both cases migrants are paying smugglers and have different ways to arrive safely, the Cuban voyages appear to be “better planned,” Coast Guard officials said. Cuban migrants and their handlers are now using cellphones and GPS technology to navigate. Some also wait things out on isolated Bahamian cays.
“That didn’t used to be the case. You would take to the sea, and you would see where the weather and the currents would take you,” McPherson said, referring to the increased use of technology. “They’re a little bit more equipped. They’re better informed by other people who have made these journeys. I think that’s the difference.”
Banned from parole program
Earlier this month, in an attempt to curb illegal migration at the United States’ borders, the Biden administration announced a two-year parole program for nationals from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, similar to one already in place for Venezuelans. The new policy allows for 30,000 immigrants combined from the four countries to enter the United States each month as long as they have a U.S. sponsor, have passed background checks and have a valid passport.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that Cubans and Haitians who take to the sea will not be eligible to apply for the parole program. They also face a five-year ban from the United States.
McPherson said he hopes the new parole program will cut down the migration numbers. But for now they are focused on doing the job they have always done.
“Our goal and our objective is to interdict these vessels, whether it’s Cuban or Haitian, as close to their point of departure as possible,” he said. “And the principal reason for doing that is because every one of them is unsafe, and many times there are deadly consequences. So we want to prevent serious injury or loss of life.”
Doing so isn’t always easy. While a migrant boat may voluntarily decide to turn back after being stopped by the Coast Guard, many times those in charge of the boats resist when interdicted.
“Sometimes they’ll threaten our boarding teams; they may threaten others on board, you know, as an attempt to keep us from coming on board or they may just kind of ignore us and continue,” McPherson said.
Once a boat gets closer to shore, migrants become more determined and desperate. The Coast Guard then has to make a new calculus as to whether to let the boat go on or stop it before migrants can drop into the ocean, which has occurred in several Haitian landings.
“We see a level of determination, and, frankly, recklessness that puts them in danger and puts our officers in danger. So the first thing we try and do is try and stabilize and secure that situation as best we can,” McPherson said. “Again, more presence on the scene is often the best option. If we need to, we may take limited force to stop them. And then to bring them off in a safe and orderly manner.
“One of the first things we always do is... we want to provide them with enough life jackets [in case] something does happen, either as a result of their attempt to evade us, or just because the vessels are unstable, unsafe,” he said. “But in many cases, in some cases, they refuse to take them.”
By the Coast Guard’s estimates, some 30,000 migrants traveled through the Caribbean last year. Not all were interdicted, McPherson acknowledged.
“That’s the most we’ve seen since 1994,” he said, turning his focus to the Homeland Security Task Force’s mass migration plan. “The plan has been in place, it’s been exercised, it’s been in use. That’s why frankly, we were able to interdict 1,000 migrants and hold them.”
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