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With Haiti in disarray, DeSantis to deploy hundreds of officers to patrol Florida shores

Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

With Haiti in disarray, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday the state will be sending hundreds of law enforcement officers and soldiers to patrol the southern coast of Florida to “combat illegal vessels” that may be carrying desperate Haitians fleeing a country whose government is under attack by gangs.

So far, a surge of migrants has not materialized in Florida. But DeSantis, who has taken measures to crack down on undocumented immigrants over the years, said in a statement that he is deploying more than 250 state officers and soldiers as well as helicopters, aircraft, drones and boats to “protect our state” from arriving migrants.

The deployment will include up to 133 members of the Florida State Guard, a civilian military force under the governor’s command that has mainly responded to natural disaster emergencies. Last fall, a select group of State Guard members with the power to make arrests and carry weapons was trained to intercept migrants at sea at a Panhandle combat-training facility.

“When a state faces the possibility of invasion, it has the right and duty to defend its territory and people,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida will act.”

In January 2023, DeSantis directed the Florida National Guard and other state agencies to set up camp in the Florida Keys to keep an eye on migrants arriving on shore from Cuba and Haiti. His actions — empowered through a state-of-emergency executive order — came after hundreds of Cuban and Haitian migrants traveling in makeshift boats were frequently landing in Florida.

DeSantis blamed President Joe Biden’s immigration policies for the migrant arrivals and said his executive actions on immigration — which has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars — have been necessary to help local law enforcement officers who “lack the resources to deal with the crisis.”

Haiti in turmoil

Haiti is facing a political crisis that threatens to topple its government. Two weeks ago, gangs declared their intentions to overthrow Prime Minister Ariel Henry and wrought havoc on Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

Henry has since agreed to resign, but it’s uncertain who will lead the Caribbean country. The international community, along with Haitian political and civil society leaders, are trying to hash out a plan for transitional governance, but disagreements abound. Most of the capital is currently under criminal control, according to the United Nations.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said on Wednesday that while “irregular migrations flows through the Caribbean remain low,” the agency was monitoring the situation with Haiti and coordinating with the State Department and other foreign partners.

“All irregular migration journeys, especially maritime routes, are extremely dangerous, unforgiving, and often result in loss of life. DHS will continue to enforce U.S. laws and policy through the Florida Straits and the Caribbean region. US policy is to return noncitizens who do not have a fear of persecution or torture or a legal basis to enter the United States,” said the spokesperson. “Those interdicted at sea are subject to immediate repatriation pursuant to our longstanding policy and procedures.”

During a Capitol Hill hearing on Tuesday, Rebecca Zimmerman, assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, said the federal government has not yet seen a large number of Haitians fleeing on boats after GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida raised concerns about the impact a possible wave from Haitians would have on South Florida.

“At the moment we have not yet seen large numbers that we would characterize as a maritime mass migration,” she said. “We are alert to that possibility. I think you are right that the driving conditions in Haiti could very well press more people.”

Gen. Laura Richardson, head of the U.S. Southern Command, added that she has put in a request for “increased capability” to deal with a mass migration event if it happens.

Stopping boats before they come to Florida

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay told the Herald that federal officials have spoken with him this week about having his deputies prepared for “an above-normal effort to leave Haiti and come to the U.S.” The Florida Keys saw the majority of Haitian and Cuban arrivals during the height of the exodus from those countries in 2022 and 2023.

“We’ve had some discussions with federal officials about the civil unrest in Haiti and the belief that more Haitian sail freighters may be trying to get to the United States,” Ramsay said.

Ramsay’s deputies were often the first contacts for Cubans and Haitians arriving in large numbers throughout the island chain between 2022 and 2023. Most of the migrants were coming from Cuba on small boats. This happened several times a day at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023.

But there were also large overloaded vessels from Haiti carrying hundreds of people. So many people were landing in the Keys during that time that sheriff deputies had to wait with them for hours on the side of U.S. 1 until overwhelmed Border Patrol agents could arrive in vans to pick them up.

This took the deputies away from their regular law enforcement duties, prompting Ramsay to complain about a lack of federal and state resources in the area. Ramsey’s complaints played a key role in DeSantis’ January 2023 executive order to send the Florida National Guard and state police officers to the county to help patrol the air and water around the Keys. Ramsay said federal officials told him this week that they are hoping to stop migrant vessels from leaving Haiti, but some could get past their patrols.

“They told us they are going to try to put more resources in that area to ward off any mass evacuations and for us to be vigilant for the potential for more migrants coming from Haiti,” he said.

After DeSantis’ January 2023 executive order, between 100 and 150 National Guard soldiers were sent to the Keys, in addition to 22 additional Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers, 24 Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents and 30 Florida Highway Patrol troopers.

State law enforcement officers would rotate in and out of the Keys and return to their regular assignments every few weeks, a police source told the Herald.

Alecia Collins, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Emergency Management, said the number of officers temporarily stationed in the Keys as part of the executive order fluctuated and went down to 63 before the latest order Wednesday.

Now, there will be 44 FDLE agents, 32 FWC officers and 39 FHP troopers, along with 88 Florida National Guard soldiers sent to the Keys, Collins said.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wrote to President Joe Biden on Tuesday that the crisis in Haiti “has profound implications for Miami-Dade County due to our significant Haitian community and proximity to the island.” She requested multi agency community briefings.

Migrants stopped

On March 8, the marine unit of the police in Turks and Caicos, just south of the Bahamas, said they had stopped a 25-foot power boat carrying 31 Haitian migrants in Northern Caicos. There were 22 men and nine women on board.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s 7th District, which is headquartered in Miami and has operations from Florida to South Carolina, announced it had repatriated 65 Haitians from a distressed boat in the Bahamas on Tuesday. The Coast Guard has repatriated 131 Haitians since Oct. 1, the beginning of the government’s fiscal year.

Puerto Rico is also a point of destination for Haitians, who depart on rickety boats from the neighboring Dominican Republic. Smugglers often abandon the migrants on remote Mona Island, a nature reserve that sits between the American territory and the eastern end of the Dominican Republic.

The Coast Guard told the Miami Herald that it has interdicted 41 Haitians in waters near Puerto Rico and the Mona Passage as of Feb. 29. Customs and Border Protection headquartered in Puerto Rico has apprehended 112 Haitian nationals since Oct. 1.


© 2024 Miami Herald

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