KEY WEST, Fla. – The maritime disaster that left rescuers still searching on Wednesday for 38 migrants lost at sea in the Florida Straits comes amid a surge in seaborne migration on both coasts as thousands of people board flimsy boats in a desperate attempt to reach the United States.
The makeshift boatlifts, carrying migrants from countries all over the world, present an unexpected and fresh challenge for the Biden administration, which was already facing a substantial increase in unauthorized crossings on the southern land border with Mexico.
The Coast Guard at times has intercepted more than 100 Cubans, Dominicans and Haitians crammed into a single boat in choppy Florida waters. On the other side of the country, smuggling networks have ferried loads of undocumented immigrants from Yemen, Mexico and Central America, sailing from Mexico to Southern California.
Experts attributed the surge in sea smuggling to beefed-up land-border enforcement combined with shrinking opportunities in developing countries stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
With a president in the White House who had promised a softer approach to the border than his predecessor, smugglers and migrants have felt emboldened, especially as thousands of migrant families have been let into the United States in spite of a public health order that allows border agents to immediately expel them back to Mexico.
“The perception among migrants and smugglers is that Biden has essentially loosened the rules,” said Seth Stodder, who was a senior Homeland Security official under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “There is a desire to test this administration.”
In addition, deteriorating conditions in their home countries, including economic insecurity, political instability, violence and natural disasters, are acting as “push factors,” he said.
The search operation for the migrants lost at sea began at about 8 am on Tuesday when a commercial mariner reported seeing a 25-foot boat capsized about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce, Fla. A tug and barge pulled a survivor off the hull who was taken to a hospital to be treated for dehydration and sun exposure.
The man, whose nationality was not released, told the authorities that he had left Bimini, in the Bahamas, on Saturday night with 39 other people. One of them was found dead. The vessel capsized shortly after leaving in conditions that included a severe cold front, up to nine-foot seas and 23-mile-per-hour winds. No one was wearing a life jacket, and the prospects of finding any more survivors were looking increasingly grim, said Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, the commander of the Coast Guard’s Miami station.
“It’s dire,” Captain Burdian said at a news conference on Wednesday.
In the 2021 fiscal year, more than 3,200 migrants were apprehended trying to reach the United States by sea. Southern California is believed to have experienced the busiest year of maritime smuggling on record, with 1,968 apprehensions. The Florida authorities detained 1,316 Cubans, Haitians and Dominicans – representing the bulk of all migrants – in the 2021 fiscal year, compared with 588 in 2020 and 748 in 2019.
While those numbers are dwarfed by the 1.7 million land-border encounters with migrants during the 2021 fiscal year, the full extent of ocean traffic remains unknown because the data represents only events in which people are detained or a vessel is recovered.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Mark Levan, a supervisory marine interdiction agent with the Office of Air and Marine Operations in San Diego who has been on the job for 20 years. “It used to be there was one event taking place a week involving a migrant vessel. Now, most weeks it’s three or four, sometimes five. ”
Many people manage to enter the United States undetected. “They would not be doing it if they were not getting away,” Mr. Levan said.
Customs and Border Protection aircraft fly overhead and Interceptor vessels patrol in the water but, as along the land border, smugglers use spotters to relay law enforcement’s aerial and maritime movements.
Ruber Sosa Lechuga, 56, an air-conditioning technician in Fort Myers, Fla., Paid $ 2,500 to make the voyage across the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico in 2006. He has simple advice for anyone who is considering migrating by sea.
“I would tell anyone, the worst enemy of mine, not to do it,” Mr. Sosa said. “It’s too dangerous.” Mr. Sosa, who is Cuban, first traveled to the Dominican Republic, and then went by boat with his wife and son, 12 at the time, to Puerto Rico. It took 11 terrifying hours. He still remembers the size of the waves.
“How many Cubans have not died in the Straits of Florida?” he said. “They prefer to die then live under this tyranny.”
He added: “I tell everyone, try to do things legally. Try to come in a plane. ”
The price nowadays to make the passage by sea surpasses the sums charged by smugglers to transport people over land.
In California, criminal organizations are collecting $ 15,000 to $ 20,000 per Mexican national, and up to $ 70,000 for people from other countries, to transport people by sea, said Joseph Di Meglio, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
“The reality is it’s a low-risk, high-reward operation,” he said.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, said last July at a news conference that people trying to migrate by sea would not be permitted to enter the United States.
“To those who risk their lives doing so, this risk is not worth taking,” he said.
Without shelter from the elements and at the mercy of their handlers, many migrants have died en route.
The boat that capsized over the weekend appeared to be part of a human-smuggling operation gone awry, the authorities said.
“The waters in the Northern Straits can be quite treacherous,” Captain Burdian said.
The Coast Guard has searched about 7,500 nautical miles, an area about the size of New Jersey, she said. The search was continuing on Wednesday, but at some point, she said, officials would have to call off the operation as the chances of survival grew more slim.
The authorities in the Bahamas said information about the boat and those aboard it was still being gathered.
“Everything is sketchy right now,” said Keith Bell, Minister of Immigration in the Bahamas. He said the authorities were still trying to confirm “whether or not it did in fact come from Bimini and who were these persons.”
The number of Cubans making the perilous journey is smaller than the numbers that arrived before January 2017, when the Obama administration ended the policy that had allowed Cubans to remain legally in the United States once they touched US soil. But numbers are climbing quickly as economic hardship and government crackdowns intensify on the Caribbean island.
In July, nine Cubans went missing after capsizing 26 miles from Cuba, while 13 others survived. In May, 10 Cubans died and eight others survived a shipwreck south of Key West, Fla.
Haitian migrants have been leaving a country engulfed in gang violence, political upheaval and destitution after the assassination of the president and a deadly earthquake.
Migrants arriving in California typically have journeyed to the Mexican border from Central America or even farther.
Smugglers on the West Coast typically use rudimentary flat-bottomed fishing boats, called pangas, that pick up migrants on the beaches in Baja California, the Mexican state just south of California. But they have also tried to blend in with recreational traffic by employing pleasure boats, such as sailboats and cabin cruisers, Mr. In Meglio, the Homeland Security investigator, said.
In the span of two weeks in August, the authorities on the West Coast halted six maritime smuggling attempts. Pangas have managed to make landfall, undetected, in the wee hours of the night up the coast from San Diego to as far as Newport Beach in Orange County, and Long Beach and Malibu near Los Angeles.
Many of the smuggling operations on the East Coast have departed from Bimini, a chain of small islands in the Bahamas populated by fewer than 2,000 people. They are the closest inhabited islands to the United States.
Just a day before the vessel that overturned with 40 migrants departed Bimini, another boat with 31 migrants capsized, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force said. All those migrants, including one woman trapped under the boat, were rescued.
On Jan. 16, a migrant vessel with two Bahamians, two Ecuadoreans and two Colombians took on water in North Bimini and had to be rescued.
And on New Year’s Day, 20 people were apprehended near Nassau, including nationals of Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras and Africa, according to local news reports.
The migrant operations, Bimini residents said, are conducted furtively. “You do not see it in the community, you only hear things,” said Robbie Smith, the former Bimini chief councilor. “If they’re doing it, they’re doing it when people are sleeping at night.”
Homeland Security Investigations has opened a criminal investigation into the voyage that is the subject of the latest search, said Anthony Salisbury, the special agent in charge in Miami.
In addition to overloading migrants on small vessels with no life jackets, smugglers sometimes kidnap, extort or force migrants into prostitution, he said.
“There has been a marked increase in maritime smuggling ventures in South Florida,” he said. “These criminal organizations have no regard for human life. They look at the migrants as package and payday. ”
Rachel Knowles-Scott contributed reporting from Nassau, the Bahamas. Susan Campbell Beachy contributed research.