Migrant Surge — In the Florida Keys

‘This federal failure is creating a humanitarian crisis’

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 4, 2023

In July 2021, I speculated that “Biden’s Border Problem Is About to Hit South Florida”, as instability grew in Cuba and Haiti, two historical sources of seaborne migration to the United States. That speculation is being proven accurate, as federal officials had to close Dry Tortugas National Park on January 2 to deal with an influx of migrants there in recent days. The local sheriff’s office has been critical of the administration’s response, asserting “This federal failure is creating a humanitarian crisis”.

Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas National Park, a 100-square-mile federal reserve consisting of seven small islands and a lot of open water, sits about 70 miles west of Key West.

The most prominent feature in the park is Fort Jefferson, on 14-acre Garden Key (also home to the park’s headquarters and visitor center). It’s “the largest all-masonry fort in the United States”, and, in an interesting bit of foreshadowing, was built in the middle of the 19th century “to protect the nation's gateway to the Gulf of Mexico”.

There’s also a harbor light at the fort, which has been alerting ships on “the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean” for more than a century to avoid the low-lying islands.

Proximity to Cuba. Speaking of that main shipping channel, the Dry Tortugas sit about 110 miles north-northwest of Havana, Cuba, and just less than 120 miles nearly due north from the Cuban port of Mariel, on the western side of the island.

If “Mariel” sounds familiar, it’s likely because that port was the main embarkation point for some 125,000 “Marielitos”, Cubans who fled the island dictatorship for the United States during the Carter administration in 1980.

While Cubans continued thereafter to transit to the United States illegally by sea in smaller numbers even after the Mariel boatlift ended, their numbers dropped in 2017 when the Obama administration ended the “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy that gave favorable status to Cuban nationals who landed here.

Recent Cuban Migrant Surge. Joe Biden’s illegal immigration policies are nowhere near as stringent as Obama's.

Under Obama, between FY 2009 and FY 2017, Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border never apprehended more than 541,000 illegal migrants, and in most years (FY 2011 to FY 2013, and FY 2015 and FY 2016) apprehensions never came close to 425,000.

Cuban apprehensions in those years were just a fraction of the total: 910 in FY 2009; 712 in FY 2010; 959 in FY 2011; 606 in FY 2012; 624 in FY 2013; 1,061 in FY 2014; 1,153 in FY 2015; 1,930 in FY 2016; and 702 in FY 2017. Nearly all of them were apprehended in Border Patrol’s coastal sectors after seaborne entries.

How times have changed. Border Patrol apprehended just over 38,000 Cuban nationals at the Southwest border in FY 2021 (when total apprehensions neared 1.66 million); more than 220,000 in FY 2022 (when agents caught more than 2.2 million aliens total); and nearly 63,500 since the new fiscal year began in October (with apprehensions nearing a half million).

An additional 49 were apprehended at the Northern border during that period, and 4,841 others were caught by agents in the Coastal sectors. According to the New York Times, more than 2 percent of Cuba’s population immigrated to the United States in FY 2022.

Part of the reason those migrants are coming to the United States is the wretched state of Cuba itself. A massive series of protests over a lack of food and medicine in the summer of 2021 were followed by a government crackdown in 2022. The country’s economy has practically stalled, and inflation there is running in the triple digits.

That said, they would not be arriving in such numbers if the Biden administration were not all but facilitating their illegal entry. In addition to reversing a series of Trump-era strategies that had successfully brought control to the nation’s borders, Biden is also the first president in history to reject the deterrence of illegal migrants as a border policy.

Simply put, nearly 320,000 Cubans in the past two-plus fiscal years and millions of other migrants are coming now because Biden isn’t even trying to stop them.

The only thing that has kept the chaos at the Southwest border from becoming an all-out catastrophe has been a series of CDC orders directing the expulsion of illegal entrants, issued pursuant to Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the outsized importance of those Title 42 orders to border security, Biden’s DOJ is fighting hammer and tong at the Supreme Court to end them, while his DHS has increasingly refused to comply with the exclusion mandates therein.

One group of nationals that are seemingly de facto exempt from Title 42 expulsion have been Cubans. Of the 319,605 Cuban nationals who have been apprehended by Border Patrol nationwide since February 2021 (the first full month of the Biden administration), just 7,412 — 2.3 percent — have been expelled under Title 42.

Part of the reason for the limited number of Cubans expelled under Title 42 is a reluctance on the part of the Mexican government to take those illegal entrants back. I will note, however, that this did not stop Trump from expelling more than 9,100 of the nearly 17,000 Cubans who entered on his watch in FY 2020 and FY 2021 (54 percent).

The Biden administration, however, has been working with the Mexican government since at least October on a deal to return Cuban migrants back across the border under Title 42, and on December 28, Reuters reported that the administration would start expelling Cubans under those CDC orders while allowing at least some of them to reenter on parole, similar to a Biden program for Venezuelans.

A “Federal Failure”. Which brings me back to the Dry Tortugas, where some 300 Cuban migrants have landed in recent days.

They are called “dry” because explorers since Ponce de León in 1513 have been unable to find fresh water there. For what it’s worth, there are few resources in those isolated islands at all, which has created a headache for DHS in caring for the new arrivals.

Those 300 are part of the more than 500 Cuban migrants who have landed in the Florida Keys since December 30, according to the Miami Herald, which reports:

The situation is frustrating local officials. Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay issued a statement Monday calling the scenes playing out on the sides of the Keys’ only major highway a “federal failure” that is “creating a humanitarian crisis.”

“This shows a lack of a working plan by the federal government to deal with a mass migration issue that was foreseeable,” Ramsay said.

I plainly foresaw it, but I doubt many in the Biden White House are listening to me.

Things Are Likely to Get Worse. Unless DHS ups its game, things are likely to get worse for Sheriff Ramsay and the rest of the state and local officials who are left to clean up Biden’s mess.

As with Border Patrol apprehensions, the number of Cuban migrants interdicted by the Coast Guard on the high seas has been surging since Biden took office, going from 49 in FY 2020 to 838 in FY 2021 to 6,102 in FY 2022. Crews have interdicted 4,076 migrants since October 1 — a harbinger of things to come, particularly at a time of the year when seaborne Caribbean migration usually lulls.

Why now? Perhaps Cuban migrants have shifted away from the Mexican border because news of Biden’s impending Title 42 expulsions there have gotten around. Most Americans may not be aware of what’s going on at the Southwest border, but it’s big news among would-be illegal entrants.

Another major factor is that illegal migration creates its own momentum. As noted, more than one out of every 50 Cuban residents came to the United States last year, and few arrived legally. Once someone you know leaves, it gets easier for you to leave, as well. That’s especially true in the case of immediate family members, who will find a built-in support system once they arrive.

Will 2023 be a repeat of the 1980 Mariel boatlift? It depends on the administration’s response. If Biden sends Cuban migrants back home quickly, the ardor of others to risk death on the high seas in an illegal-entry attempt will cool quickly. Given the administration’s feckless response to illegal migration at the U.S.-Mexico line, however, I would not get my hopes up about an effective response anytime soon.