A wave at sea: migrants seek to enter the United States on flimsy boats

[The Coast Guard suspended its search for victims after recovering the bodies of five migrants.]

KEY WEST, Fla. – The maritime disaster that left rescuers still searching Wednesday for 38 migrants lost at sea in the Florida Straits comes amid a surge in maritime migration on both coasts as thousands of people board flimsy boats in a desperate attempt to reach the United States.

The makeshift boat lifts, carrying migrants from countries around the world, present an unexpected new challenge for the Biden administration, which was already facing a substantial increase in unauthorized crossings at the southern land border with Mexico.

The Coast Guard has at times intercepted more than 100 Cubans, Dominicans and Haitians crammed into a single boat in rough Florida waters. On the other side of the country, smuggling rings transported loads of undocumented immigrants from Yemen, Mexico and Central America, sailing from Mexico to Southern California.

Experts have attributed the increase in maritime smuggling to stronger law enforcement at land borders, combined with diminished opportunities in developing countries resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

With a president in the White House who promised a softer approach to the border than his predecessor, smugglers and migrants felt emboldened, especially as thousands of migrant families were allowed into the United States. United despite a public health order that authorizes border agents to immediately deport them to Mexico.

“The perception among migrants and smugglers is that Biden has basically relaxed the rules,” said Seth Stodder, who was a top Homeland Security official under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “There is a desire to test this administration.”

In addition, deteriorating conditions in their home countries, including economic insecurity, political instability, violence and natural disasters, act as “push factors”, he said.

The search operation for migrants lost at sea began around 8 a.m. Tuesday when a commercial sailor reported seeing a 25-foot boat capsize about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce, Florida. A tug and barge pulled a survivor from the hull who was being taken to hospital for treatment for dehydration and sun exposure.

The man, whose nationality has not been disclosed, told authorities he left Bimini, Bahamas, on Saturday night with 39 other people. One of them was found dead. The ship capsized shortly after departing in conditions that included a severe cold front, up to nine feet of sea and winds of 23 miles per hour. No one was wearing life jackets and the prospects of finding more survivors looked increasingly bleak, said Captain Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of the Coast Guard station in Miami.

“It’s terrible,” captain Burdian told a press conference on Wednesday.

In fiscal year 2021, more than 3,200 migrants were apprehended trying to reach the United States by sea. Southern California is believed to have had the busiest year for maritime smuggling on record, with 1,968 arrests. Authorities in Florida detained 1,316 Cubans, Haitians and Dominicans — representing the bulk of all migrants — in fiscal year 2021, down from 588 in 2020 and 748 in 2019.

Although these figures are dwarfed by the 1.7 million border encounters with migrants in fiscal year 2021, the full extent of maritime traffic remains unknown as the data only represents events in which people are detained. or a ship is salvaged.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Mark Levan, a supervisory maritime interdiction officer with the San Diego Office of Air and Marine Operations who has served for 20 years. “Previously, there was one event a week involving a migrant ship. Now most weeks it’s three or four, sometimes five.

Many people manage to enter the United States undetected. “They wouldn’t if they didn’t run away,” Mr Levan said.

Customs and Border Protection planes fly overhead and Interceptor ships patrol the water but, as along the land border, smugglers use spotters to relay law enforcement air and sea movements.

Ruber Sosa Lechuga, 56, an air conditioning technician in Fort Myers, Florida, paid $2,500 to cross the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico in 2006. He has some simple advice for anyone considering migrating by sea .

“I would tell anyone, my worst enemy, not to do it,” Mr Sosa said. “It’s too dangerous.” Mr. Sosa, who is Cuban, first traveled to the Dominican Republic, then traveled by boat with his wife and son, then 12, to Puerto Rico. It took 11 terrifying hours. He still remembers the size of the waves.

“How many Cubans did not die in the Florida Strait? he said. “They would rather die than live under this tyranny.”

He added: “I say to everyone, try to do things legally. Try to come by plane.

The price these days to make the passage by sea exceeds the sums requested by the smugglers to transport people by land.

In California, criminal organizations collect between $15,000 and $20,000 per Mexican national, and up to $70,000 for nationals of other countries, to transport people by sea, said Joseph Di Meglio, assistant special agent in charge homeland security investigations in San Diego.

“The reality is that this is a low risk, high reward operation,” he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas told a news conference last July that people trying to migrate by sea would not be allowed to enter the United States.

“For those who risk their lives doing this, it’s not worth taking the risk,” he said.

Homeless from the elements and at the mercy of their masters, many migrants died along the way.

The boat that capsized over the weekend appears to be part of a human smuggling operation gone wrong, authorities said.

“The waters of the North Strait can be very dangerous,” said Captain Burdian.

The Coast Guard searched about 7,500 nautical miles, an area the size of New Jersey, she said. The search was continuing on Wednesday, but at some point, she said, authorities would have to call off the operation because the chances of survival were getting slimmer.

Bahamian authorities said information about the boat and the people on board was still being collected.

“It’s all a blur right now,” said Keith Bell, Bahamas immigration minister. He said authorities were still trying to confirm “whether or not it actually came from Bimini and who these people were.”

The number of Cubans making the perilous journey is lower than what happened before January 2017, when the Obama administration ended the policy that had allowed Cubans to stay legally in the United States once they hit the American soil. But the numbers are rising rapidly as economic hardship and government repression escalate on the Caribbean island.

In July, nine Cubans went missing after capsizing 26 miles from Cuba, while 13 others survived. In May, 10 Cubans died and eight others survived a shipwreck south of Key West, Florida.

Haitian migrants leave a country plagued by gang violence, political upheaval and misery after the assassination of the president and a deadly earthquake.

Migrants arriving in California have typically traveled to the Mexican border from Central America or even further afield.

West Coast smugglers typically use crude flat-bottomed fishing boats, called pangas, which pick up migrants from the beaches of Baja California, the Mexican state just south of California. But they also tried to blend in with recreational traffic by employing pleasure craft, such as sailboats and cabin cruisers, said Mr. Di Meglio, the Homeland Security investigator.

In the space of two weeks in August, West Coast authorities stopped six sea smuggling attempts. The pangas managed to make landfall, undetected, in the early hours of the night on the San Diego coast as far as Newport Beach in Orange County, and Long Beach and Malibu near Los Angeles.

Many smuggling operations on the east coast have left Bimini, a chain of small islands in the Bahamas with populations of fewer than 2,000 people. They are the closest inhabited islands to the United States.

Just a day before the ship that capsized with 40 migrants left Bimini, another boat with 31 migrants capsized, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force said. All these migrants, including a woman trapped under the boat, were rescued.

On January 16, a migrant ship with two Bahamians, two Ecuadorians and two Colombians took on water in North Bimini and had to be rescued.

And on New Year’s Day, 20 people were apprehended near Nassau, including Ecuadorian, Colombian, Honduran and African nationals, according to local news reports.

Migrant operations, Bimini residents said, are carried out by stealth. “You don’t see it in the community, you just hear things,” said Robbie Smith, the former chief councilor for Bimini. “If they do, they do it when people are sleeping at night.”

Homeland Security Investigations has opened a criminal investigation into the trip that is the subject of the latest search, said Anthony Salisbury, the special agent in charge in Miami.

In addition to overloading migrants on small boats without life jackets, smugglers sometimes kidnap, extort or force migrants into prostitution, he said.

“There has been a marked increase in maritime smuggling businesses in South Florida,” he said. “These criminal organizations have no respect for human life. They consider migrants as a package and a salary.

Rachel Knowles Scott contributed reporting from Nassau, Bahamas. Susan Campbell Beachy contributed to the research.

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