A U.S. Coast Guard crewman cradled two babies after rescuing them from a boat struggling in swells of 6 to 10 feet. Their families, and many others, were desperate to get to the United States, in spite of the perilous seas, the risk of being stopped, or worse.
Monday’s unfolding drama off the Florida Keys played out with dozens of people attempting to migrate from Haiti with their toddlers and infants.
The disabled boat was stopped 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 from the boat, but the group was much larger and the operation to get the others to safety continued through Monday afternoon.
The initial people saved were “a very small part of the ongoing rescue operation,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Nicole Groll said Monday afternoon.
She said rough seas and high winds, whipping at 25 mph, made the rescue effort difficult. Images released by the Coast Guard show 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 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 Guantanamo Bay, NBC News reported.
The naval base at Guantanamo Bay has historically been used by previous administrations to house Haitians, a decision 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo, 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.
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