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A surge at sea: Migrants seek entry to the US aboard flimsy boats


In an undated image provided by the U.S. Embassy Nassau, the man who was rescued after he was found straddling the hull of a boat that capsized near the Fort Pierce Inlet on Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

By Frances Robles and Miriam Jordan


The maritime disaster that left rescuers still searching earlier this week 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 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 Joe Biden, who promised a softer approach to the border than his predecessor, in the White House, smugglers and migrants have felt emboldened, especially as thousands of migrant families have been let into the United States despite 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 about 8 a.m. Tuesday when a commercial mariner reported seeing a 25-foot boat capsized about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce, Florida. 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 authorities that he had left Bimini, in the Bahamas, 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 9-foot seas and 23 mph winds. No one was wearing a life jacket, and the prospects of finding any more survivors was looking increasingly grim, said Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of the Coast Guard’s Miami station.


“It is dire,” Burdian said at a news conference 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. 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 wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t getting away,” 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, Florida, 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,” Sosa said. “It’s too dangerous.” 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 haven’t died in the Straits of Florida?” he said. “They prefer to die than 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 collect $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 Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, said at a news conference in July 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, authorities said.


“The waters in the Northern Straits can be quite treacherous,” 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 Wednesday, but at some point, she said, officials would have to call off the operation as the chances of survival grew more slim.

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