63 migrants in Florida from Haiti were at sea for weeks

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A sailboat floats in the shallow water off Card Sound Road in Key Largo Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. The U.S. Border Patrol said at least 61 migrants from Haiti were on the vessel.

A rickety wooden sailboat that washed up in the Upper Florida Keys ferrying at least 63 Haitian migrants came directly from Haiti, some of the migrants told U.S. immigration authorities.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Division Chief Adam Hoffner said the migrants told authorities they “spent over three weeks out at sea.”

If that’s the case, it would be the first time in more than two years that such a large group of Haitians managed to evade the U.S. Coast Guard, whose patrol of the Florida Straits has led to the interceptions of thousands of would-be Haitian migrants trying to illegally enter the U.S. either directly from Haiti or from the Bahamas.

It is also the scenario that the Biden administration had been hoping to avoid amid Haiti’s worsening political instability and worrying descent into gang-fueled anarchy.

Ahead of a visit to South Florida this summer, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned Cubans and Haitians: “Any migrant intercepted at sea, regardless of their nationality, will not be permitted to enter the United States.”

On Thursday, the migrants were still being processed more than 24 hours after their arrival. Rather than face expedited removal under a controversial Trump-era, COVID-19-related public health law known as Title 42, which has been applied to thousands of other recent arrivals at the southwest land border of the United States and Mexico, they were being placed in normal immigration removal proceedings where they would be given “credible fear” interviews.

Each detainee, Hoffner said, will be questioned regarding any “fear they may have of returning to their country of origin, to ensure that each detainee is afforded the ability to articulate claims of fear.”

Those who pass will get a chance to make their asylum claims to remain in the United States before an immigration judge.

“This is a good sign; this is the normal removal process,” said Randolph McGrorty, the head of Catholic Legal Services in Miami, which represents undocumented Haitians and other migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.

Catholic Legal Services, along with other immigration and Haitian advocacy groups, has criticized the Biden administration’s use of Title 42, which has allowed for the expulsions of thousands of migrants at the southern border without the possibility of making an asylum claim to remain in the U.S. through a credible fear interview. In a lawsuit, advocates argued that even under Title 42, the U.S. had to comply with its international agreements, which was to make sure it wasn’t sending refugees back to face prosecution.

“They never asked anyone about prosecution. They just put them on the plane under Title 42 as an emergency power,” McGrorty said. “There’s never been any indication that they asked anyone about why they left their home country under Title 42. So I am encouraged.”

McGorty said he has only seen Title 42 being used at the southern land border, while acknowledging that “we haven’t seen boat arrivals from Haiti in a long time. It’s been a number of years. Usually they make it to Puerto Rico, so this is unusual.”

Hoffner said Title 42 doesn’t apply in South Florida, just at the southern border.

The Haitian migrants arrived in the sailboat Wednesday on the shores of a remote wooded stretch of shore off Card Sound Road in northern Key Largo. The Upper Florida Keys was an unusual landing spot.

Monroe County is a frequent destination for Cuban migrants, who have also been fleeing their homeland in increasingly large numbers. People migrating from Haiti, however, usually land ashore farther north or are stopped at sea somewhere before reaching the U.S. mainland.

Eleven migrants were taken to Mariners Hospital with minor issues, mostly suffering from dehydration, said Capt. David Garrido with the Key Largo Fire Department. On Thursday, the migrants remained in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, raising concerns about their fate among immigration and Haitian activists.

Ramp-up expulsions in the last two months have led to the deportation of more than 8,700 Haitian migrants on board 83 flights to Haiti since Sept. 19. The enforcement came after nearly 15,000 migrants, most of them Haitians, fled to the U.S.-Mexico border and set up camp underneath the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, in hopes of entering the U.S.

Despite calls for the administration to cease the deportations amid its own warnings for Americans in Haiti to leave the country, the deportation flights have continued.

“It is criminal for us to be deporting anyone to Haiti right now,” said Marleine Bastien a Haitian and immigration rights activist who spent Thursday trying to learn more about the migrants and what the Department of Homeland Security plans to do. “They’ll face grave danger of kidnapping, beatings, rape, and possible murder, a situation that the U.S. contributed to by supporting corrupt and incompetent selected officials while ignoring the plight of the Haitian people.”

Bastien on Thursday was making calls about the newly arrived migrants while fielding calls about Haitians living in Mexico and the Dominican Republic complaining about increased repressions and expulsions. She said her organization, the Family Action Network Movement, is asking Mayorkas “to immediately order the release of these refugees and give them the chance to state their cases.”

Bastien, who is supporting an effort in Haiti to have the country enter a two-year transition with civil society leaders at the helm, said “the Biden administration has a window of opportunity to do right by the Haitian people — heed the calls of the civil society that crafted a sensible plan to bring security and life to the island.”

In the past months, governments across Latin America and in the Caribbean have reported an influx in Haitian migrants as they either transit through their nations or seek temporary shelter while waiting to get to the United States.

The rise in undocumented Haitians seeking to enter the U.S. follows a series of disasters that have hit Haiti, and ramped up efforts by traffickers.

In July, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in the middle of the night in his private bedroom in the hills above the country’s capital. Five weeks later, the country’s southern peninsula was devastated by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake. An ongoing humanitarian response has been hampered by a rise in gang violence that has also led to spikes in kidnappings and a life-threatening fuel crisis that forced the closures of schools, businesses and even hospitals.

As part of the spike in the worsening Haitian migration crisis, observers have also detected new routes being used by traffickers, which may explain Wednesday’s unusual landing. Instead of launching from the northern coast of Haiti, boats have been leaving from Haiti’s southern coast with the Bahamas Defense Force documenting Haitian boats in its southern waters near Cuba.

Petty Officer Nicole Groll, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard’s Southeast District, said the agency is aware that Haiti’s “southern claw” is becoming a more frequent launching point for migrants. As a result, the Coast Guard is focusing more of its air patrols closer to Haiti in an effort to stop people before they are at risk farther out at sea.

This story was originally published November 18, 2021 2:09 PM.

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.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.