A growing migrant crisis in the Florida Keys is garnering attention among federal and state leaders in 2023. More resources to the Keys, per recent action by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are providing relief for local law enforcement and bringing added benefits of more road and water patrols.
Coast Guard crews and U.S. Customs & Border Protection agents, with help from local law enforcement, were inundated with migrant interceptions on the water and landings on Keys soil to start the new year. Since late December, more than 700 migrants from Cuba and Haiti have reached the Florida shores. And since the new fiscal year started last October, Coast Guard crews have intercepted and sent back close to 5,000 Cuban migrants on the water — on pace to smash the previous year’s record of 6,182.
While reports of landings along the island chain’s shore calmed in recent days — high winds and seas and a border policy change from President Joe Biden’s administration could be playing a role — added resources are ready to handle any incoming landings. On Jan. 18, border patrol agents and other law enforcement agencies responded to a landing near Big Pine Keys, where 15 Cuban migrants arrived after setting sail from the Matanzas region.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ issuance of a 60-day state of emergency on Jan. 6 also brought the Florida National Guard’s activation to assist with increased landings as far south as Dry Tortugas and north to the Upper Keys. Two dozen officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, roughly 20 Florida Highway Patrol troopers and 20 Florida Fish & WIldlife Conservation officers from various parts of the state were sent to the Keys. FWC also brought the 42-foot vessel “Fearless” with three crew members and the 85-foot vessel “Gulf Sentry” with six crew members to assist agencies.
Additional resources are helping the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, which has responded with deputies to landings up and down the Keys for many months. Sheriff Rick Ramsay said that’s allowing deputies to respond to calls in the community as Florida Highway Patrol troopers deal with the migrant landings.
“The boots on the ground are helping. The National Guard is doing a good job,” Ramsay said. “They have a Black Hawk flying offshore looking for and identifying and intercepting migrants before they make landfall. With a strong ground presence and air element, we’re going to send a message to third world countries that now is not a good time to come. You will get intercepted and sent back.”
Extra troopers in the Keys mean more law enforcement on the road. Ramsay said troopers in cars, SUVs and on motorcycles are also staying busy dealing with speeders and other traffic infractions.
“The bad is we’re dealing with an increase in migration. The good thing is we have more resources here to help us with response and visibility.”
Ramsay credited the work of the Coast Guard and Customs & Border Protection with the resources they’ve had to deal with the crisis. He also commended DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson for infusing more manpower to deal with the landings.
DeSantis, in a recent news conference, said the Coast Guard requested state assistance to handle the vast number of vessels coming to shore. DeSantis, a Republican, said he wanted to mitigate the damage from what he called Democrat Biden’s “disastrous border policies.” DeSantis also said the state will remove migrant vessels from Keys properties for free.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio recently visited the Keys to witness the recent surge in migrants arriving from Cuba and Haiti and the response among federal, state and local officials. He joined the Coast Guard’s air operations and sat down with leaders from the various agencies. He also voiced criticism of the Biden administration’s “lax border security measures.”
“When migrants arrive, state governments, local communities and other emergency personnel must spend valuable time, labor and resources to provide medical care, personnel processing and other critical space to look after hundreds of migrants that land unannounced and demand immediate attention. This diversion of resources hamstrings local and state efforts to assist Americans in need of help,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, Department of Homeland Security secretary.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez has also been vocal about the ongoing mass migrant landings. He’s requesting reimbursements for costs incurred by the state and Monroe County from migrant landings, as well as more Customs & Border Protection resources in the Keys. Monroe County Mayor Craig Cates is seeking support among commissioners to call on the federal government to provide the necessary resources to address the influx of migrant arrivals in the Keys.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott visited with McPherson, leadership from Coast Guard Sector Key West and other law enforcement agencies dealing with the migrant landings.