Cuban migrants flow into Florida Keys, overwhelm officials

MARATHON, Fla. (AP) — More than 500 Cuban immigrants have come ashore in the Florida Keys since the weekend, the latest in a growing number fleeing the communist island and reaching thinly veiled U.S. border agencies both on land and in the sea.

It’s a perilous 100-mile (160-kilometer) trip in often rickety boats — thousands have reportedly died in recent years — but more Cubans are taking the risk amid the deepening and integration of political and economic crises at home. A smaller number of Haitians are also fleeing their country’s economic and political problems and arriving by boat in Florida.

The Coast Guard is trying to intercept the Cuban migrants at sea and turn them back. Since the US government’s new fiscal year began on Oct. 1, about 4,200 have been stranded at sea — or about 43 a day. That’s up from 17 per day in the previous financial year and just two per day during the 2020-21 financial year.

But an unknown number have arrived and are likely to stay.

“I would rather die so I can reach my dream and help my family. The situation in Cuba is not very good,” Jeiler del Toro Diaz told The Miami Herald shortly after coming ashore Tuesday in Key Largo.

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The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees US Customs and Border Protection, said it would issue a statement on Wednesday, but has not yet done so.

Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of seven islands 70 miles (110 kilometers) west of Key West, remained closed to visitors on Wednesday as the US evacuated migrants who came ashore there earlier in the week. On average, about 255 tourists a day arrive by boat and seaplane to tour the islands and Fort Jefferson, which was built 160 years ago. Officials do not know when it will reopen.

In Marathon, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Key West, about two dozen migrants were held in a fenced-off area outside the Customs and Border Protection station where tents had been erected to provide shade. When Associated Press reporters tried to talk to the migrants through the fence, Border Patrol employees told them to leave.

Ramón Raul Sanchez with the Cuban-American group Movimiento Democracia went to the Keys to assess the situation. He told the AP that he met a group of 22 Cubans who had just arrived. They were standing along the main road, waiting to be picked up by US authorities. Sanchez and Keys officials said the Biden administration needs a more coordinated response.

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“There is a migration and humanitarian crisis, and it is necessary for the president to respond by helping local authorities,” Sanchez said.

Cubans are willing to take the risk because those who reach US soil almost always stay, even if their legal status is murky. They also arrive by land, flying into Nicaragua, then traveling north through Honduras and Guatemala into Mexico. In the 2021-22 fiscal year, 220,000 Cubans were stopped at the US-Mexican border, nearly six times more than the previous year.

Callan Garcia, an immigration attorney in Florida, said most Cubans who reach US soil tell Border Patrol agents they can’t find enough work at home. They are then flagged as “expedited for departure” as having entered the country illegally. But that doesn’t mean the actual one will be removed quickly — or at all.

Since the US and Cuba do not have formal diplomatic relations, the American government has no way of repatriating them. The Cubans were released but given an order requiring them to contact federal immigration authorities periodically to confirm their address and status. They are allowed to obtain work permits, driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers, but cannot apply for permanent residency or citizenship.

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Garcia said that can last for the rest of their lives; some Cubans who arrived in the 1980 Mariel boatlift are still designated as “expedited for departure.”

“They’re just here with a floating order for removal that can’t be executed,” Garcia said.

A small percentage of Cuban immigrants tell Border Patrol agents they are fleeing political persecution and have been “paroled,” Garcia said. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, they were released until they could appear before an immigration judge to make their case. If approved, they can receive permanent residency and later apply for citizenship.

On the other hand, Haitian immigrants are almost always sent back, even though political persecution and violence are widespread there, along with severe economic hardship.

“The inconsistency is something that immigrant rights advocates always point to,” Garcia said.


Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP reporter Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.


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