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Coast Guard says 176 Haitian migrants arrived off the Keys in an overloaded sailboat

Fire rescue personnel tend to a migrant boat carrying up to 100 people from Haiti early Monday morning, Jan. 10, 2022, off Key Largo. (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue/TNS)

For the third time in as many months, a group of Haitian migrants has come ashore in the Florida Keys.

The latest group of 176 individuals arrived late Sunday night — near the shores of the exclusive gated community of Ocean Reef in north Key Largo shortly after 11 p.m. This is almost the exact same spot as two other boats that arrived from Haiti carrying large numbers of people.

This is the largest group of Haitians to make its way through the Florida Straits since boats began arriving again in November after more than a two year hiatus. The Keys arrivals coincide with an increase in Haitian migrant activity in the aftermath of the July 7 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse; an increase in gang criminality and kidnappings, and the deadly Aug. 14 earthquake in the southern region of Haiti, where recovery has been impeded by ongoing violent clashes by warring gangs at the southern entrance of Port-au-Prince.

At least six people in the group have been taken to the hospital, according to the Key Largo Fire Department.

Key Largo Fire Capt. David Garrido said his staff transported three of the migrants to the Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, and Ocean Reef medics transported another three people.

“They were all taken to Mariners and treated for fatigue,” Garrido said.

The Coast Guard noted late Monday night that the boat was first spotted by a U.S. Customs Air and Marine Operations flight crew about 25 miles northeast of Anguilla in the Bahamas.

The Coast Guard Cutter Paul Clark caught up with the sailboat near Ocean Reef, and found the 60-foot vessel was overloaded with people and without basic lifesaving equipment or navigational lights. The Coast Guard crew immediately threw flotation devices to the people on the boat.

Making matters worse, the Coast Guard added, were the 20-mph winds and 4- to 6-foot seas.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said 11 of its units responded to a situation near Ocean Reef, possibly in reference to reports over 100 people on board a boat, with around 20 people needing medical evaluation and attention.

“Everyone was removed from the vessel. There were four patients total. Two adult patients and two pediatric patients were transported by ground to a local-area hospital,” Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said in a release.

Adam Hoffner, division chief with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in South Florida, said Border Patrol agents responded to the Ocean Reef area around 12:20 a.m. to what he called in a statement “a maritime smuggling event involving a large group of migrants” who “made landfall.”

“The investigation regarding this incident remains ongoing,” Hoffner said Monday morning.

Other agencies helping with the operation included the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Coast Guard.

On Nov. 18, 2021, 63 Haitian migrants arrived aboard a rickety wooden sailboat in the Upper Florida Keys after reportedly spending three weeks at sea, according to what some migrants told U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Then on Christmas eve, a second group of 52 migrants landed on Card Sound Road in Key Largo.

As of Jan. 6, the U.S. has sent 13,320 Haitians back to Haiti on board 125 Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter flights since mid-September, according to the International Organization for Migration, when the Biden administration announced it was ramping up deportations to Haiti after thousands of migrants arrived at the U.S. Southern border and camped out underneath an international bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

While most of the migrants from the two previous boats have been released from detention, according to immigration lawyers tracking migrants at South Florida’s two detention facilities, they still face removal to Haiti under U.S. immigration law.

On Monday, 297 Haitians including 63 children were returned aboard three Haiti-bound flights from the U.S., say advocates tracking the flights, which last week numbered a dozen.

Puerto Rico has also seen an uptick in Haitian migration since August 2021, said Ricardo Castrodad, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard in San Juan.

Much of the migration is occurring by makeshift boat through the Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the island the Dominican Republic and Haiti share.

Smugglers often drop off migrants on tiny Isla de Mona, an uninhabited Puerto Rican nature reserve in the channel. After Dominicans, Haitians are the second-largest group the U.S. Coast Guard intercepts crossing the Mona Passage, said Castrodad.


© 2022 Miami Herald
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