As more migrant boats continue to arrive, Keys responders find themselves at their wit’s end
It was early December, and Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay was fed up with the federal government’s response to what he considered a ‘humanitarian crisis’ as more and more migrants arrived by boat in the Florida Keys.
“Mass migration is preventing essential personnel from carrying out their protection, response, investigation and patrol duties in our communities,” he said at the time.
Every day, it seemed, more and more people, usually from Cuba and sometimes from Haiti, arrived in overloaded boats. Ramsay’s 203 Highway Patrol deputies had little authority to do much more than stand on the side of US 1 and wait for US Border Patrol officers to arrive to transport newcomers to they are treated on the mainland.
But, between receiving “refugee arrival” calls, responding to them and waiting, his deputies have been pulled from their jobs fighting local crime.
“Each landing requires resources to be diverted from other critical missions and sometimes requires many officers depending on the number of migrants, their cooperative or uncooperative behavior, as well as whether they are grouped together or cross citizen properties,” said Ramsay. Miami Herald at the time.
The sheriff complained that migrant landings were flooding the 911 dispatch center, which then had to contact several other agencies — the US Coast Guard, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the fire department — to coordinate a response.
James Callahan, Monroe County Fire Chief, said his firefighters and medics have had to respond to multiple landings since the holidays. He said his 145-member department, working at 10 stations across the county, has transported more than 20 migrants to area hospitals in recent weeks with various medical conditions.
The Keys have been receiving migrant trips from Cuba and Haiti for decades, but the U.S. Border Patrol reported last month that maritime migration to the region has skyrocketed since early October. Yet at the time, the state and federal government offered no assistance to local agencies like the sheriff’s office.
“The government won’t call this mass migration, but when the migration reaches over 600% increase, we call it mass migration,” Ramsay said.
A lot changed in a monthstarting with how the Biden administration is handling newcomers from Cuba — from allowing those who illegally crossed the ocean to stay with a court date that could be years away, to now threatening that anyone who do so will be sent home – a policy change announced last week..
The next day, Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order activating the Florida National Guard and instruct state agencies like the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who help patrol the Keys and surrounding waters for incoming migrants.
Both actions followed a steady increase in migrant landings throughout December, punctuated by a massive landing of nearly 500 people from Cuba in Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of isolated islands about 70 miles west of Key West, over New Years weekend.
This prompted the federal government to take the unprecedented step of closing a national park to the public for reasons other than a national disaster like a hurricane.
Ramsay said this week that so far the decisions of the Biden and DeSantis administrations appear to be making a difference. Migrants continue to arrive almost daily, but the groups have been smaller this week and they are arriving less frequently.
“It’s a fluid situation that comes and goes. One day you can have 10 arrivals. The next day it might be three,” Ramsay said Wednesday.
Cubans are often in contact with friends and family in the United States. Ramsay theorizes that loved ones here are telling people on the island that “now is not the smartest time to come”.
“It’s not worth the risk right now,” he said. “And, if they come, they can’t say they didn’t know.”
Other relevant agencies
The sheriff’s office isn’t the only law enforcement agency in the Keys affected by the increased landings. Officers from smaller police departments like the city of Key West and Key Colony Beach, a small incorporated town in the Middle Keys, are also feeling the impact, according to their chiefs.
“Officers are called upon to handle several subjects who have just arrived at Key Colony Beach. Officers have other responsibilities and tasks that they must perform during their shifts,” said city police chief Kris DiGiovanni.
Key Colony Beach was one of the hardest hit areas in the Keys during the latest influx of migrants, with several rustic makeshift ships arriving at the community’s shores and beachfront yards. For its skeletal crew service — with just four full-time officers and two reserve officers — it’s been chaotic at times, DiGiovanni said.
“After the initial disembarkation of the migrants, officers will also receive phone calls referring to the vessel that remained behind,” he said. “Often, if left at a private residence and the owner is unaware of the recent landing of migrants, the owner can call a suspicious vessel and the officer will have to investigate to find out if it is or not from the same ship that arrived previously. .”
Although the migrant situation in the Keys made national headlines over the holidays, it has been going on for nearly two years. The highest number of Cubans crossing the Florida Strait in nearly a decade arrived between October 2021 and September 2022.
A byproduct of this has been a marked increase in the number of abandoned boats littering the island chain, a problem made worse by Hurricane Ian in September. Brittany Burtner, the county’s senior marine resources administrator, said her department had removed 93 derelict vessels by the end of 2022.
It’s unclear how many more are floating in the channels, canals and against the mangrove-lined shore, as several boats have arrived almost daily in recent months.
“Migrant ships have on board pollutants in the form of gasoline, diesel and oil in unapproved containers,” Burtner said. “Since there is pressure on resources, these pollutants can seep into our coastal waters. I fear this will become an environmental emergency.
Displaced and abandoned vessels are documented and cataloged by the FWC. It is then up to the county to find contractors to remove the boats. The county received 150 clearances for maritime abductions last year, and 49 of them were migrant boats, Burtner said.
Homemade, assembled boats, many powered by mid-hull Soviet-era truck engines, have become the unofficial symbol of the latest wave of migration to the Keys. They are not hard to find. But, there have also been several notable arrivals of larger ships – mostly sail driven, all overcrowded – from Haiti.
Two of those boats are in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Burtner said, and the county recently received a grant to remove them.
“In total, the county spent just over $93,000 moving migrant and derelict vessels, and migrant vessels accounted for more than 67% of that total,” she said.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management, the agency DeSantis tasked with the migrant operation in the Keys, posted a statement on Twitter on Wednesday telling people how to report a migrant boat for kidnapping if one arrives on their property. Under the executive order, those ships “are not your problem,” the agency told residents.
“If an abandoned vessel lands on your property, you are not responsible for its removal,” the statement read. “The state will remove these ships for you free of charge.”
The agency has provided a number – 888-404-3922 – to report abandoned boats.