a sailboat in the ocean with a ship in the background
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Venturous repatriated 65 migrants to Haiti on March 7 following an interdiction of a migrant venture on this vessel near Great Inagua, Bahamas. U.S. COAST GUARD/Contributed

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a wave of state officers and guardsmen to the Florida Keys in preparation for possibly more maritime voyages among migrants from two Caribbean countries facing unrest and violence. 

DeSantis’ deployment of some 133 Florida State Guard members on March 13 was in response to the possible influx of Haitian migrants taking to the southern U.S. waters. Since late February, gangs unleashed violent, lethal attacks on areas surrounding Haiti’s capital in Port-au-Prince, killing dozens, kidnapping many more and leaving the country in a state of despair. 

Attacks and killings continue despite Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s intentions to step down and form a presidential transition council, which gangs demanded. Gangs in Haiti have opposed Henry as prime minister, believing he wasn’t elected by the people. 

“The Coast Guard does by and large a good job, but they’re undermanned.” — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Recent gang uprisings in Haiti could mean more dilapidated sailing vessels taking to the sea with hundreds of Haitians onboard hoping to reach U.S. soil, particularly the Sunshine State and the Keys. Not only did DeSantis deploy more than 130 state guardsmen to the Keys and South Florida, but he also recently ordered 30 Florida Highway Troopers, 23 Florida Fish & Wildlife officers, 39 Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers and 48 Florida National Guard members. A total of 250 officers and soldiers and more than a dozen air and sea craft were deployed to the southern coast of Florida, DeSantis said. 

“No state has done more to supplement the (under-resourced) U.S. Coast Guard’s interdiction efforts; we cannot have illegal aliens coming to Florida,” DeSantis said.

This isn’t the first time the Florida governor deployed resources to the Florida Keys to assist local law enforcement overwhelmed with migrant landings. DeSantis activated the Florida National Guard on Jan. 6, 2023, days after federal, state and local authorities dealt with the arrival of 300 Cuban migrants at Dry Tortugas National Park. Since August 2022, agencies have encountered more than 8,000 Haitian migrants in the Florida waters. 

“What’s their potential threat to the citizens here and also to the state of Florida?” — Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay

Florida Keys Sheriff Rick Ramsay appeared on Fox News on March 18 to discuss the potential flow of Haitian migrants to Florida amid the gang uprisings. Ramsay said he was told there could be a larger wave of voyages and migrants than what the island chain witnessed in past years. 

In August 2022, 300 Haitian men, women and children aboard a wooden vessel grounded not far from the gated Ocean Reef community in North Key Largo. Months later, a vessel carrying nearly 200 Haitian migrants grounded on the sandbar in Islamorada on Nov. 21, 2022.

“Our resources are very limited here,” Ramsay said, applauding U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and DeSantis for assisting on the mass migration front. “All my troops are on ready (and) standby. We have mass migration plans already on the books. Our first goal is to help, aid, and assist state, local and federal governments, but keep my citizens safe and secure.”

Meanwhile off the Florida coast, vessels carrying Haitian migrants have been intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, which continues to confront illegal voyages to the U.S. by sea from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. On March 12, the Coast Guard repatriated 65 migrants to Haiti following an interdiction near Great Inagua, Bahamas five days before. A good Samaritan notified the Coast Guard on March 7 of a vessel in distress. 

“The Coast Guard’s primary mission as a member of the Homeland Security Task Force – Southeast is to preserve human life at sea,” said Capt. Willie Carmichael, incident commander for Operation Vigilant Sentry.

On Feb. 29, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission intercepted a boat with smugglers and children in Brevard County near the Indian River County line. Officers say the 42-foot vessel had two dozen Haitians, guns, night vision equipment and drugs onboard. 

“This is not really our responsibility,” DeSantis said regarding state and local resources used to combat illegal maritime voyages. “This is the federal government’s responsibility. The Coast Guard does by and large a good job, but they’re undermanned.”

Ramsay said the federal government has “dropped the ball” in dealing with mass migration issues. 

“Are these people (Haitians) coming just looking for a better way of life? Or, with all the volatility, are these criminals, are these emptied-out prisons, are these gang members? … What’s their potential threat to the citizens here and also to the state of Florida?” Ramsay said during the Fox News interview. 

A Haitian puts a thumbs-up after reaching U.S. soil in Tavernier on Feb. 9, 2023. The man was loaded onto a bus with 100 other Haitians. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S Homeland Security secretary, recently said a limited pool of funds is putting all work, from shelter services and border security and “everything across the diverse threat landscape that we face in very serious peril.”

In January 2023, the Biden administration announced its intent to provide safe and orderly pathways to the U.S. for up to 30,000 nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The program, formerly known as the Process for Cubans, Haitians, Nicarauguans and Venezuelans, allows certain people from those four countries who have a sponsor in the U.S. and who pass a background check to come to the U.S. to live and work lawfully for two years — using a mechanism called “humanitarian parole.”

The creation of this new parole program, however, was coupled with restricted access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In January 2023, the government of Mexico agreed to allow the U.S. to expel up to 30,000 migrants from those countries to Mexico each month — preventing them from requesting asylum under U.S. immigration law. With the expiration of the Title 42 order in May 2023, the U.S. announced that it would formally deport some migrants from these countries to Mexico instead of to their home countries.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez represents the Florida Keys and south Florida in Congress. He accused the Biden administration of standing idly by while Haiti descended in chaos following the assassination of then-President Jovenel Moïse three years ago. Gimenez said community security is at risk of another mass migration event from Haiti. 

“I demand the Biden administration implement a comprehensive strategy to address the unrest in Haiti and prevent this security crisis from impacting South Florida families,” Gimenez said. 

Haitian migrants who reached the Tavernier shore receive a mask and board a U.S. Homeland Security bus on Feb. 9, 2023. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

According to a report by CNN, the Biden Administration has discussed using Guantanamo Bay to process Haitian migrants, if there’s a mass exodus to the U.S. Located 200 miles from Haiti, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba once had a migrant center to process migrants before returning them to Haiti. The center is separate from where terrorist suspects are held.

Last July, the U.S. State Department heightened the travel advisory to level 4, urging people not to travel to Haiti amid rising crime, kidnappings and poor infrastructure. The message hasn’t changed as of March. And with the Port-au-Prince airport shutdown, the State Department is working to get Americans trapped in the country safely to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Local, state and federal authorities aren’t only preparing for possible mass migrations from Haiti. They’re also dealing with Cuban migrant landings amid political unrest. On the evening of March 18, U.S. Customs & Border Patrol responded to Duck Key, where 24 Cuban migrants arrived on a homemade vessel. Samuel Briggs II, acting chief patrol agent for U.S. Border Patrol in Miami, said they will be processed for removal proceedings. 

Jim McCarthy
Jim McCarthy is one of the many who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures in Western New York. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 5-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club. When he's not working, he's busy chasing his son, Lucas, around the house and enjoying time with family.