More than a dozen Haitians, desperate to reach U.S. soil, jumped into the water off the Florida Keys on Monday under the night sky after their dilapidated wooden sailboat grounded on a popular sandbar in Islamorada.
The fleeing migrants set off a chaotic scramble by law enforcement officials. Sheriff's deputies, state Fish and Wildlife police and federal agents pointed flashlights to light up the dark ocean, while a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter circled above to help federal crews capture as many migrants as possible.
The boat's arrival, shortly after 5 p.m. near the Whale Harbor Bridge, culminated a harrowing journey from Haiti and a day in which U.S. Coast Guard crews, battling rough seas and high winds, tried to prevent the sailboat from capsizing as it struggled to stay afloat in high swells off Key Largo.
At around 7 p.m., officers had rescued one man as he clung to the Whale Harbor Channel Bridge for support, with water rushing through the channel underneath the span. Soon, another six men were plucked from the sea. They were placed in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat docked at the Postcard Inn Marina on the other side of the bridge. Another group of seven men were also brought in by Custom agents via boat to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission base on the bay side of the bridge. One of the men appeared to be extremely dehydrated as a federal agent helped him off the patrol boat.
Peter Daniel, the patrol agent in charge of the Marathon Border Patrol Station, told the Miami Herald that 18 people had jumped into the water and all have since been rescued.
"They were all safely rescued from the water and are in U.S. Border Patrol custody," he said.
The boat, Daniel said, entered U.S. territorial waters on Sunday night. It was unclear late Monday how many Haitians had made the attempt to illegally enter the United States. Chief Terry Abel of the Islamorada Fire Rescue Department said he had been told earlier in the day to expect a total of 237 migrants onboard a vessel.
U.S. Coast Guard crew members had spotted the boat earlier in the day when it became disabled about 20 nautical miles off Rodriguez Key, a small island off Key Largo, according to law enforcement sources. Coast Guard crews initially rescued 22 people, but the group was much larger and the operation to get the others to safety continued through Monday afternoon.
As the boat struggled in swells of 6 to 10 feet, Coast Guard crew members managed to rescue several children including two babies. By the time the boat arrived in Islamorada Monday night, 100 people had already been rescued by the Coast Guard and placed on a cutter out to sea, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Nicole Groll.
Groll said rough seas and high winds, whipping at 25 mph, made the rescue effort difficult. Images released by the Coast Guard showed several young children on the migrant vessel, rescued and then cared for and fed by crew members.
The Coast Guard declined to confirm the nationalities of the people on the boat, but two sources said they are from Haiti. It is the first boat in months to arrive from the country where a chronic shortage of fuel, followed by a two-month gang blockade of the main oil terminal, Varreux, in Port-au-Prince, slowed down attempts of people trying to migrate to the U.S.
Biden administration officials had worried that once fuel began to flow again, the U.S. could see a mass migration from Haiti — which is in a worsening humanitarian, security, economic and political crisis — as well as a new cholera outbreak. In anticipation of a surge, the administration had been looking to expand a migrant center on Guantánamo Bay, NBC News first reported.
The naval base at Guantánamo Bay has historically been used by previous administrations to house Haitians, a decision that some migrant and Haitian advocates have long criticized.
"The U.S. government always does contingency planning out of an abundance of caution and for a wide range of potential scenarios," a National Security Council spokesperson told the Miami Herald in early November, asked about the White House considering the use of Guantánamo Naval Base to once more process Haitians trying to reach the United States. Two U.S. officials said that the administration's position has not changed since that time.
The spokesperson that the United States had "not seen an increase in Haitian maritime migration, and no decisions have been made."
"In fact, the number of Haitians interdicted at sea has significantly decreased in recent months. The United States continues to coordinate with our international partners first and foremost to support the people of Haiti and address the security and humanitarian situation in the country," said the spokesperson.
Migrants interdicted at sea attempting to enter the United States are typically repatriated to their home country. But if the migrant expresses fear at the prospect of being returned, they can be brought to Guantánamo, where USCIS agents conduct "well-founded fear" interviews, work on their case and identify next steps, a U.S. official said.
The Upper Keys, particularly the area in north Key Largo near the gated community of the Ocean Reef Club, has been the destination of several large landings of Haitian migrants over the past year:
- In early August, a sailboat with more than 300 people from Haiti grounded off Ocean Reef, with more than 100 people jumping off the vessel and swimming to the shore of the exclusive community and resort.
- In March, 356 people from Haiti arrived in an overloaded freighter just offshore of Ocean Reef.
- In January, a group of 176 Haitians arrived in almost the same spot.
- The trend began last November with a group of 63 people arriving in a rickety sailboat just offshore of Card Sound Road, a remote two-lane highway that leads to Ocean Reef, followed by 52 people arriving in the area on another sailboat Christmas Eve.