Increasing Numbers of Haitians Head to the U.S. by Sea

New front in the border crisis

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 6, 2021

In a July 15 post, I postulated that turmoil in Haiti and Cuba could spur a new boatlift of migrants from the Caribbean to the United States. Recent news reports reveal that the number of Haitian migrants fleeing the country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic between Cuba and Puerto Rico, by boat has been on the uptick of late. That news has largely been lost following the end of a fiscal year in which more than 45,000 Haitians were apprehended at the Southwest border.

On November 20, the Washington Post reported that more than 1,500 Haitian nationals were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in FY 2021, three times as many as in FY 2020, and the largest number in five years.

Unlike most of the Haitian migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico land border — who are largely leaving South American countries where they were firmly resettled — those migrants were coming directly from Haiti, seeking to escape poverty, violence, and the unsettled political situation there.

Many are setting sail on overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. The Post article focused on a group of 50 migrants who had set out from the Haitian coastal town of Jérémie in September in what the paper described as a “battered wooden boat” that began to take on water at sea.

They are far from alone, and their numbers are growing. Border Patrol’s Ramey sector, in Puerto Rico, reports that its agents apprehended 142 Haitian migrants in October, on top of 163 others who were apprehended in September.

By contrast, between October 2019 and February, Border Patrol agents in Ramey sector caught just 22 Haitians, a figure inflated by the apprehension of 18 in January 2020, but since May (when 13 Haitians were apprehended) their numbers have been steadily climbing: 31 in June, 40 in July, and 60 in August.

Compared to the national security and humanitarian disaster unfolding at the Southwest border, the number of seaborne Haitian migrants is (at this point) relatively small, but that belies the dangers of their journey.

Puerto Rico is about 80 miles from the Dominican Republic side of Hispaniola across a dangerous strait known as the “Mona passage”. Eighty miles on rough seas is an eternity in a leaking vessel.

Many don’t make it because they are stopped on the way. The Miami Herald reports that Dominican authorities have interdicted 853 migrants and 139 small wooden boats known as “yolas” this year, and in late October, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that it had returned 71 migrants — 56 Haitians and 15 Dominicans — after stopping boats in five separate incidents over a five-day period.

Others just don’t make it, either because their vessels sink, or they are jettisoned to the sea by their smugglers. The Herald quoted a local pastor of Haitian descent who takes care of migrants in Puerto Rico. He explained: “Some [smugglers] throw them in the water ... because the one driving the boat doesn’t want the police to catch them.”

So many migrants have been found on uninhabited Mona Island, a nature reserve (“the Galapagos of the Caribbean”) that sits in the middle of the passage 41 miles from the west coast of Puerto Rico, that Xavier Morales, Chief Patrol Agent at the Ramey sector, had to issue a warning to would-be smugglers in October:

We will continue to pursue criminal prosecution for anyone smuggling non-citizens into the United States. ... Bringing non-citizens into Mona Island is a serious crime and puts lives at risk. We will bring the smugglers to justice.

Rafael Machargo, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Natural Resources, asked that Border Patrol agents be stationed on the island after 81 Haitian migrants — some children — were dropped off there in a 12-day period in September. It is unclear whether Border Patrol has acceded to that request.

Compared to the almost 1.66 million illegal migrants apprehended at the Southwest border in FY 2021, 1,500 Haitian migrants entering by sea is a small number. But it’s a small number that is growing, opening a new front in the border crisis.