Immigration

Florida Gov. DeSantis Rolls Out Resources To Address Cuban Migrants

Florida's governor has declared a state of emergency and is now bringing in the Florida National Guard to address the migrant crisis.

Florida Gov. DeSantis Rolls Out Resources To Address Cuban Migrants
Marta Lavandier / AP
SMS

While the Biden administration rolls out new border security measures, an influx of migrants in Florida is prompting the state's governor to send more resources. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency and activated the Florida National Guard, the order stating the numbers "have risen to alarming levels not seen for decades." Federal agencies reported an increase in encounters over the New Year holiday weekend in the Florida Keys region. 

"When you get here you are desperate to see family members. When you see one, you see the open skies," said Saide Enrique Gonzales after being released from a border patrol station alongside Felix Rojas del Rio. 

The two say they're from Cuba and describe a tough journey over 24 hours before making it. 

"We came here to work, to work, to have a better future," said Rojas del Rio. 

"We came because the situation in our country is very difficult. There is a lot of scarcity, a lot of political problem that was causing us a lot of difficulties," said Gonzales. 

Outside a border patrol station where they were released, Gonzales gave a hug to someone waiting on the other side. 

They're among many migrants, many from Cuba and some from Haiti, who have sought a life in the U.S. through Florida's shores. 

The Homeland Security Task Force Southeast reported partners interdicted more than 7,700 migrants at sea and more than 4,400 migrants who arrived by land since August. The U.S. Coast Guard says it's interdicted more than 4,700 Cuban migrants since the start of fiscal year 2023 in October, which is about 77% of FY2022's total. 

"As the negative impacts of Biden's lawless immigration policies continue unabated, the burden of the Biden administration's failure falls on local law enforcement who lack the resources to deal with the crisis," DeSantis said in a news release. 

The governor's office said the state would deploy airplanes and helicopters and bolster maritime patrol. 

Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said the response includes not only the Florida National Guard, but also Florida Highway Patrol and officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Children & Families are standing by. 

U.S. President Joe Biden.

Biden Toughens Border, Offers Legal Path For 30,000 Migrants A Month

Cuban migrants are still arriving by boat in the Florida Keys even as the Biden administration promises a crackdown.

LEARN MORE

"In this case here, this is federal authority," Guthrie said. "So the Feds didn't have to ask the state for assistance. And then we asked the locals for assistance. Right now, there has not been that request. However, under the governor's leadership, what we're doing is a proactive measure to help detect and report vessels that are coming into the United States and more specifically Florida illegally." 

"If we can patrol the coastal waters of Florida with our assets, it allows the Coast Guard to push deeper into places like the Mona paths and the Windward paths into the Florida straits getting closer to Cuba, getting closer to Haiti, so that they can interdict closer to the point of origin," he said. 

Guthrie said they'll also work to clean up the vessels scattered throughout the Keys, estimating there are about 300 of them. 

The director of the Homeland Security Task Force – Southeast, which is part of Operation Vigilant Sentry, launched in August to respond to maritime migration, said it welcomes the resources and support. 

"The Task Force will integrate the Florida National Guard elements with the existing federal, state and local partners, and together we will follow the Operation Vigilant Sentry plan to save lives and counter irregular, illegal maritime migration," said Rear Adm. Brendan C. McPherson in a statement. 

While the governor put the onus on the Biden administration, he did not reference the president's recent announcement on border policy. It includes new pathways with a parole program used for Venezuela to Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, but more consequences for those who cross the border illegally. 

"Unfortunately, we have seen several governors play political games," said Marsha Espinosa, DHS's assistant secretary for public affairs. "The fact of the matter is we are addressing Cuban migration through the process we announced on Thursday. The Homeland Security Task Force – Southeast, an interagency task force led by DHS, is operating in an enhanced posture to patrol the Florida Straits, Windward Pass, Mona Pass, and Caribbean Sea by air, land, and sea to save lives while preventing and deterring dangerous irregular maritime migration." 

A DHS official explained Cubans who enter by the sea will go to removal proceedings and be ineligible for the parole process. 

"It's complicated because we Cubans don't have much choice and our country politics are bad for the people. All the new laws are affecting the people completely. What we want is to be able to live like people, not like animals," Gonzales said of the new policy announced. 

Residents help Cuban migrants to shore near Key West, Fla.

Cruise Ship Rescues Cuban Migrants Near Florida Keys

18 people, including women and children, were rescued from a makeshift boat by the Scarlet Lady cruise ship between Key West and Cuba.

LEARN MORE

President Biden's new border policy has also sparked criticism from some organizations, including concern about impacts to the asylum system. The Florida Immigrant Coalition's executive director said it helps a limited number of people, offers only temporary protection and "isn't easily applicable in failed states." 

In Key West, immigration attorneys Amanda Velazquez and Wayne Dapser said they have worked with Cuban and Haitian migrants, respectively, who are working through the immigration system in the U.S. 

"I think the biggest challenge is if they're paroled, that time frame, that time period of how to survive, really just how to work — where are they going to live? How can they afford to be here? You know, I think that's probably the biggest challenge," said Velazquez. 

"And there's language issues, and then there's education issues," said Dapser. "So yeah, they come on in. And at that point, also, they've got a time frame. If you come on in, you've got one year in which to file an asylum claim, claiming that you are afraid to go back to your country for very specific reasons. And you have no other third country that you can go to, OK, evaluating this as one thing and then saying, yeah, what does it take, these are not easy cases to do. And they're expensive." 

Dapser doesn't think the new policy will have an effect on the migration. 

Agencies reported an increase in migration over the long New Year holiday weekend, including more than 1,000 migrant encounters, landings and interdictions at sea. Since Jan. 4, the Coast Guard reported more than 640 additional Cuban migrants interdicted. On Sunday, border patrol reported two landings in the Keys and encounters with 53 migrants, of which four were taken to a hospital and treated for dehydration. 

It's a very dangerous journey, often in rickety boats across the Straits of Florida. On Smathers Beach in Key West, some of the boats left ashore appear to be made of Styrofoam or drums. 

"Very bad trip. It wasn't a good trip! Thanks to the helmsman, thanks to him and to God who laid his hand, we arrived well," said Fernandez Carabello from a border patrol station. 

Newsy's Ben Schamisso rides along with a U.S. Coast Guard pilot.

On Board With The U.S. Coast Guard: Surveilling The Sea For Migrants

Crossing land isn't the only way migrants are finding their way into the U.S. Many Haitian and Cuban migrants make the difficult journey on the ocean.

LEARN MORE

"I think if we all go back four or five generations, we're all immigrants," said Mike Weinhofer, captain of Compass Rose Charters. "I've made that crossing probably 25 times fishing Cuba tournaments, and it's nasty water. You're crossing the middle of the Gulf Stream." 

Weinhofer says he spends 10-12 hours a day on the water and sees the makeshift vessels loaded with migrants. 

"Normally, the boats are packed as many as they can take. Almost always, when you see a boat, they're taking on water balance, because of balance to keep it afloat," he said. 

Each day is different, though. 

"Absolutely we're seeing more and more of them by the day and I think it's gonna get worse," he said, later stating, "I think they all deserve a right to stay or a hearing. The repatriation is not good." 

The Coast Guard said it repatriated more than 270 Cubans on Sunday, the same day the Dry Tortugas National Park reopened after closing because of migrant landings over the New Year holiday weekend that saw additional landings in the Keys and Marquesas Keys. 

"They're really our closest neighbor," said Kendall Klay, a fishing captain of Keys to the Keys Adventure and organizer with a group that works to clean up the uninhabited island. "Most of the Keys was founded by Cubans. They're people to me. Historically, whatever, all that doesn't really matter. In this crisis it's just about, I can't let someone be hungry somewhere, thirsty somewhere with a clear conscience; it doesn't matter who they are, what their politics are." 

Klay said the organization encountered a group of migrants on the island and returned to bring them things like food and water. Cell phone video shows the group running to them when they pulled up. One man explained to Klay the journey took two days and that they were on the beach for nearly three days without anything. 

"We were already bringing supplies out for our cleanup crews. We're just bringing more now in case we encounter that again," Klay said. 

Carabello said he would tell arriving migrants "to fight for this future and don't give up, to always push forward and don't be afraid. Come, this is the country of opportunities." 

U.S. officials continue to discourage people from making the dangerous voyage.