Haitian migrants sail to Florida Keys in increasing numbers


SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla. — The sea in this slice of the Florida Keys that locals call “paradise” had been rough all week, with 6-to-8-foot swells keeping even the most experienced boaters on land.

But on the morning of March 14, a stately wooden sailboat emerged from the emerald waters that anchor life here. Residents could hear the sound of singing and hymns onboard.

As the boat approached the dock behind a house where Julia Barraclough works, it ran aground on a sandbar and started tipping on its side. “I saw people just pouring out like lava,” said Barraclough, 59. “It was absolutely surreal. This big, beautiful boat, and it was so close, and it took a minute to register. These are refugees!”

Barraclough, a former scenic artist for “Saturday Night Live” and experienced diver, immediately rushed into the water. For the next 30 minutes, she threw lifelines to dozens of Haitians, she said.

By the time Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents arrived on Summerland Key, 30 miles northeast of Key West, about 130 migrants had come ashore. The landing, one of four major migrant arrivals in the Florida Keys since January, represents the latest challenge for federal and local authorities trying to control the flow of undocumented immigrants entering the United States.

Although the Florida Keys have been an entry point for refugees fleeing communist Cuba since the 1960s, officials say the influx of migrants by boat represents a shift in migration patterns.

Since the start of the year, more than 800 Haitians have landed in the 113-mile-long Florida Keys, made up 1,700 small islands. Two of the landings occurred in Ocean Reef, an exclusive gated community near Key Largo that is home to some of nation’s wealthiest residents, officials said.

“We have not seen this number of migrants in many years, and it’s very unusual,” said Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, who has been a law enforcement officer in the county since the 1970s. “These boats just seem to be drifting, with no electronics, and very little ability to navigate … closest place they see shore is what they want.”

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Other officials are seeing similar trends. The U.S. Coast Guard has been intercepting about four Haitian migrant vessels per month at sea, each with an average of about 150 occupants on board.

Coast Guard crews have interdicted 2,953 Haitian migrants at sea since the start of the federal fiscal year on Oct. 1, nearly 1,500 more Haitians than were picked up at sea last year. The Coast Guard is now on track to intercept 15 times as many Haitian migrants this year as it did in fiscal year 2020, according to data supplied by the Coast Guard.

Capt. Adam A. Chamie, commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Key West sector, said human smugglers from Haiti have “figured out a way to reach South Florida” by sailing through the Old Bahama Channel shipping route between the Bahamas and Cuba.

“We are adapting our posture to respond to that,” said Chamie, noting the Coast Guard is adding patrol boats and surveillance flights near the Florida Keys.

The Haitian migrant landings are part of a broader spike in refugees from Caribbean nations taking to the sea to reach the United States, a trend that some advocates say could accelerate in the coming weeks, as President Biden relaxes some covid-era immigration policies.

That influx has concerned local residents and officials, who say the administration isn’t doing enough to address the issue. And it has vexed Haitian activists, who worry both about the migrants’ safety at sea as well as how the federal government has been treating Haitians once they are detained onshore.

“We know they are being taken to detention centers, far away from family members” in Florida, said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian American community activist and executive director of the Miami-based Family Action Network Movement. “There is a high expectation most will be deported.”

There has also been a surge of migrants from Cuba this year, though they have been arriving on smaller boats and their numbers still pale compared to past upticks in Cuban migration. Still, with migrants from either Cuba or Haiti now landing in the Florida Keys every few days, advocates and local officials say the issue could complicate the debate over immigration.

Florida’s robust and overwhelmingly Democratic Haitian American community is already unnerved that deportations of Haitian refugees have not slowed under Biden, with some activists threatening to sit out this year’s midterms. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), up for reelection this year and also widely mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, has been pushing policies to keep undocumented immigrants out of the state.

“Haitian advocates have been put in a really difficult situation,” said Randolph P. McGrorty, director of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami. “My biggest worry is Haitians are now going to swarm the border, after getting bad advice from smugglers … and think the U.S. is going to welcome them with open arms.”

‘It’s just a matter of time’

The rise in Haitian migrants is connected to the humanitarian conditions and political instabilities that have engulfed the country for nearly a half century.

The country has been repeatedly battered by natural disasters, epidemics, a crumbling economy and relentless violence. Last year, the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated, leading to even more upheaval.

As he stood outside a laundromat in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, Joseph Fontanes, 65, said his wife and children who still live in Haiti must spend $18 for a bag of ice. Fontanes, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1990 but used to frequently travel back to Haiti to see his family, said there is also widespread fear of kidnapping and gun violence.

“I have not seen my wife for five years, because the risk is too great,” he said. “Even if they see you with a small gold chain, someone will shoot you.”

Since the 1970s, there have been several periods when tens of thousands of Haitians have attempted to reach the United States because of political instability, including in the early 1990s after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup.

In the past, Haitians who fled the country by sea mostly attempted to reach the United States by traveling through the Bahamas, making their way on vessels headed toward south or central Florida, including Palm Beach.

Now, more smugglers are luring Haitians onto boats that sail directly toward the Florida Keys.

It’s a perilous journey, as most of the vessels are severely overcrowded. Weather and seas along the route can also change rapidly, Chamie, the Coast Guard commander, said.

“These boats, every single one of them is taking on water,” Chamie said. “Every single one of them is unseaworthy, simply because they overloaded with so many people on these boats, it’s just a matter of time until they sink.”

‘A solemn sense of relief’

The sailboat that came ashore on the south side of Summerland Key — a community where nearly every resident owns a boat, and even the local pizza shop is named “A Slice of Paradise” — used tree trunks for its mast and bow. The sail appeared to consist of parachute cloth and blankets.

Barraclough, who helped rescue the migrants, said most were teenage males, with no personal belongings or spare clothes. One man was so disorientated when he hopped off the boat that he attempted to swim out to sea, until Barraclough helped guide him toward land.

“Their faces had the look of exhaustion, fatigue and gratitude at the same time,” Barraclough said. “It was just a solemn sense of relief that they had made it.”

Barraclough believes that luck — or fate — led the migrants to the perfect location to run aground.

Barraclough’s employer — 95-year-old Gilbert Seveneant, whose family once operated two now-shuttered French restaurants in Manhattan, Café Brittany and Brittany du Soir — spoke to some of the migrants in French. He allowed one to call home to alert his family that he was safe, telling him how his own family left Brittany, France, in 1930 and arrived in the U.S. by boat.

Others around Summerland Key, a neighborhood where oceanfront homes are now selling for about $2 million, were shocked that the vessel evaded the weather and the Coast Guard.

“There were 6-to-8-foot seas that entire week, and we could not go out on our boats, and then they show up,” said William R. O’Neil, 60, who owns three properties here. “I thought, ‘Holy crap, they came 700 miles in this ship?’”

Although O’Neil feels sympathy for the migrants and hopes that they are not deported, he wonders why neither the Coast Guard nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents detected the vessel before it reached his community. Besides the Coast Guard vessels and aircraft that patrol Florida waters, O’Neil said a large surveillance blimp hovers over the lower Florida Keys to try to deter smuggling and border intrusions.

“You had to know they were coming,” O’Neil said. “If you had two or three guys in a 24-foot boat, okay, maybe. But if that thing got through, and we didn’t see it, we’ve got a big problem.”

Coast Guard officials said 90 percent of Haitian migrant vessels are intercepted at sea. “There really is a lot of water out there,” Chamie said. “So, while we at the Coast Guard, along with several other partners, are trying to identify, intercept and interdict those vessels as they are heading north, there is so much area to cover.”

The migrant landing in this heavily Republican community, where it is common to still see signs of support for former president Donald Trump, has also touched off emotional debate over immigration policy.

Francisco Nunez, 58, recently retired to Summerland Key after a career owning an automobile repair shop in Texas.

When Nunez saw the migrant vessel from his dock, it brought back memories of his own journey to the U.S. from Cuba in 1980, as part of the Mariel boatlift.

Sixteen at the time, Nunez boarded a Cuban shrimp boat along with his brother and 200 others for a journey across the Straits of Florida to Key West. The journey terrified him, even though it only took a day. He thinks about how anguished the Haitian migrants had to be during their 7-to-10-day journey.

“I was on the back of the boat, and when the wave hits, that boat comes up like this,” Nunez recalled, flinging his wrist upward. “You can see every head from the whole boat because it’s full of people.”

“When it goes down,” Nunez continued, “you think the ocean is going to eat you and swallow you.”

But despite the sympathy he feels toward the Haitian migrants, Nunez is not convinced they should be allowed to remain in the country.

“I get being in their shoes is really tough,” Nunez said. “But at the same time, a country has to protect its borders, and it has to be controlled immigration.”

As he sliced pork fat to feed the bait fish he raises in a cage anchored to his dock, Jay Januik said the migrant landing left him feeling conflicted.

The retired electrician does not like Biden, and believes he is allowing undocumented immigrants to stream across the Mexican border. But Januik doesn’t see the Haitian migrant ships as a major U.S. policy challenge. Januik, an avid boater and wind surfer, does not believe that most Haitian vessels can make it to the Florida Keys without capsizing.

“I feel bad that they took that kind of chance, probably for nothing,” said Januik, as a highly poisonous Portuguese man-of-war swam past his dock. “But it’s not like the Mexican border where it seems like anyone can come over, they test you, treat you, give you medical care, put you on a bus and let you go, which I consider one of Biden’s biggest screw-ups.”

‘A very personal issue’

Ramsay, the Monroe County sheriff, said he’s frustrated that the federal government isn’t doing enough to support state and local governments, he said.

A Republican, Ramsay said it can take hours for a Customs and Border Protection agent to respond to migrant landings. When a large Haitian migrant vessel ran aground near Ocean Reef Club in the northern Florida Keys earlier this year, Ramsay said the Customs and Border Protection agency had only one deputy on duty in the region, and it took him several hours to respond to the scene.

Ramsay said he recently shared his concerns with senior leaders of the CBP’s Miami sector.

“The conversations were not mean, but we were clear that we are carrying most of the water here,” Ramsay said. “And we are tying up resources here instead of doing patrol and police work.”

In a statement, the CBP’s Miami office said it uses a “layered enforcement approach” that includes working closely with the Coast Guard, Homeland Security Investigations and local law enforcement agencies to “secure the Florida Keys.” The agency also plans to expand “intelligence techniques” to further disrupt undocumented immigration.

“Because the Florida Keys has a total land area of 983 square miles, the partnership and collaboration among law enforcement is vital to responding to maritime smuggling events,” the agency said.

State officials also note they, not the federal government, are responsible for figuring out how to remove abandoned migrant vessels. The Haitian vessel in Summerland Key, for example, still rests in a harbor near the Niles Channel Bridge on Route 1.

David Dipre, captain of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Florida Keys division, said the increase in migrant landings is “taxing” because his office is already short about 20 staff positions than it is budgeted for.

“We have removed lots and lots of vessels related to migrant landings, and there are still quite a few out there,” said Dipre, who said his officers also respond to calls for “migrants in the water” or when federal law immigration officials need help with crowd control.

Yet in a county where all four county commissioners are Republicans, Monroe Mayor and County Commissioner David Rice said he hopes the influx of Haitian migrants does not become yet another divisive political issue.

Florida Keys residents, he said, have a lot to be concerned about, including a severe lack of affordable housing, sea level rise, the boom-bust cycle of the lobster harvest and chronic traffic congestion on Route 1. And Rice said most of his constituents understand that “things are really hard in places on this earth,” so they try to be compassionate and helpful when a migrant vessel shows up.

“This is absolutely a politically charged issue, but it’s also a very personal issue,” said Monroe County Commissioner Holly Raschein, who represents Ocean Reef, where residents raided the pool club for towels to keep migrants warm until help arrived.

Barraclough, for example, vows she will be right back out there in the water if another vessel in distress lands in her neighborhood. Barraclough said the refugees “didn’t say anything” as they scrambled out of the water to safety on Seveneant’s sea wall.

When the last person made it to shore, “I shouted, ‘Welcome to America,’” Barraclough said. “And then they all cheered.”