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An alarming trend is emerging in South Florida, where officials are seeing increasing numbers of migrants, mainly Haitians and Cubans, traveling to the shores of the United States on makeshift boats.
US coast guard crews have intercepted more than 6,000 Cubans since last October, according to the agency, the maximum number in a fiscal year since the 1990s.
“We’ve seen it before. It is a natural phenomenon. However, seeing the increase is really worrying for us and the fact that we are seeing more people on not-so-seaworthy ships, putting a significant amount of those people at very dangerous risk of death, “said Walter Slosar, chief agent of Miami sector patrol.
Cubans have been fleeing the island for years, but recent riots, persecutions and a shortage of basic necessities have prompted others to leave.
“Individuals have come to us with stories of persecution by the local government for their inability to attend certain events, for disagreeing with the local and communist politics of the island. It’s not just them, but also many stories of family members, friends who have been arrested, detained for minor and non-criminal offenses, “said David Claros, director of Immigration Legal Services Southeast Region at Church World Service, adding that he is hiring staff additional to meet the demand.
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Patrols here are complicated by the variable terrain, which requires coordination between land, air and sea agencies. CNN recently joined the air and sea operations of the United States Border Protection and Customs, the United States Border Patrol and the Coast Guard.
The agencies will work together to identify and interdict migrants so that they can be repatriated. If they arrive at the landing, however, they are taken into custody by the border police.
As the Coast Guard tries to intercept migrants before they reach the US coast, thousands have come ashore. So far this fiscal year, border authorities have arrested nearly 3,600 in the Miami sector, which covers more than 1,200 miles of the Florida coast, up from just over 1,000 last year.
Authorities have encountered a wide range of ships on and offshore, ranging from surfboards tied together and boats with limited supplies and no navigation system to what is often a day trip. Barely an hour into a Coast Guard patrol, the crew members spotted an improvised ship at sea with about eight people.
And it’s not just Cubans. Officials are also grappling with a growing number of Haitian migrants traveling by sea. The Coast Guard has responded to incidents of large sailing merchant ships carrying dozens, if not hundreds of Haitian migrants, putting those on board at risk.
“The conditions on board were awful,” said Mark Lamphere, a Coast Guard maritime interdiction officer, recalling a ship that arrived on the Florida coast this year.
“There have been reports of people injured in the hull, so I had to jump there and it was obvious just standing up,” he said. Two hundred of them were crammed in there and would have defecated and urinated right where they are. ”
Slosar recognized the demand for resources to address new trends.
“We all work with limited resources and when we meet these people, you don’t know who is on that boat. Our mission is to understand who is entering the country. It takes our agents time to bring them into our custody, make sure they’re healthy and clean, fed and safe, and then identify exactly who they are, “she said.