02/10/2022

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356 people in Haitian migrant group that landed in the Keys

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Dozens of Haitian migrants gather on shore at Ocean Reef Club, a gated community in north Key Largo, Sunday, March 6, 2022. The people are part of a large migrant group that arrived on a wooden boat that day.

The Coast Guard said the final tally of migrants from Haiti packed onto a rustic wooden ship that grounded off an ultra exclusive gated community in the Florida Keys Sunday afternoon is 356 people.

The blue boat, which appeared to be some sort of old yacht or a ferry, ran aground about 200 yards off Ocean Reef Club at the northern end of Key Largo. Immediately after the vessel came to a stop, almost half of its occupants jumped into the ocean and swam to shore.

Photos were released Sunday that showed the people huddled on Ocean Reef’s grounds swathed in the resort’s towels.

In a statement issued Monday, the Coast Guard said there were no reported injuries. It still remained unclear if anyone needed medical attention.

The statement also confirmed the worst fears of migrant advocates — that the people would likely be returned to Haiti at a time when the island nation is experiencing extreme widespread violence and political upheaval.

“Migrants attempting to enter the United States illegally by sea can expect to be repatriated, regardless of their nationality,” the Coast Guard said.

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Haitian migrants are gathered on a wooden vessel that grounded off Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo Sunday, March 6, 2022. Jason Rafter/FWC

Advocates urge asylum

If recent history is any indication, most, if not all in the group will be taken back to Haiti.

Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, a leading nonprofit aid group for Haitians and Haitian migrants hopes that doesn’t happen, however. She said that’s because the country is going through grave political turmoil and daily violence. The migrants, she added, should be considered refugees instead of being sent back to face danger and possible death.

“They’re fleeing for their safety. We are the champions of human rights, supposedly. We must abide by international law and afford them due process,” Bastien said. “If they were from any other nation in the world, they would be granted asylum.”

Migration flow has ramped up since a series of catastrophes last summer. These include the July 7 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse; increased gang activity, including kidnappings and rapes; and the deadly Aug. 14 earthquake in the southern region of Haiti. Recovery efforts in the quake’s aftermath have been hampered by continued violence between warring gangs at the southern entrance of Port-au-Prince.

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Haitian migrants are gathered on a wooden vessel that grounded off Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo Sunday, March 6, 2022. Officer Jason Rafter/FWC

“We’ve watched the migration flow over the course of the past 50 years, and numbers always go up when there is high levels of violence and instability,” Bastien said.

The federal government tracks immigration and migration by the fiscal year, which begins and ends Oct. 1 of every calendar year. With six months left to go, FY 2022 is looking like it could soon surpass the number of Haitian migrants the Coast Guard stopped at sea in all of last fiscal year — 1,152 people versus 1,527 — should the trend continue.

Family Action Network Movement released a statement Monday afternoon urging the Biden administration to stop deporting Haitian migrants until conditions within the island nation improve.

“President Biden promised to bring equity and justice to his administration. It is time to end the double standard and free the Haitian refugees now,” the statement reads.

Where are they now?

On Monday, Agent Adam Hoffner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Division Chief for the agency’s Miami Sector, told the Herald the 158 migrants who made it to shore are being held at two separate Border Patrol stations — one in Dania Beach and the other in the Middle Keys city of Marathon.

“The others were transported to a [Coast Guard] cutter pending the repatriation process,” Hoffner said.

Several children are among the group, Hoffner said, although he did not have the exact number Monday night.

“We are still processing the migrants,” he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection initially said in a statement released via Twitter that the landing was a “human smuggling event.” Officials, however, now say it looks like a mass migration incident that does not involve smugglers, given the type of vessel used.

Human smuggling usually involves the use of a speedboat or cabin cruiser to deliver people. On Sunday, the migrants loaded on to an aging wooden boat that from the looks of it had questionable seaworthiness.

“We’re not seeing any signs of smuggling,” said Nestor Yglesias, spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations, the agency that investigates human smuggling crimes.

This story was originally published March 7, 2022 7:07 PM.

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David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.