Cubans and Haitians Are Fleeing to the U.S. in Staggering Numbers
So many Cubans and Haitians arrived at once that Dry Tortugas National Park was forced to temporarily close.
MIAMI—Over 300 Cuban and Haitian migrants recently landed at Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote protected archipelago located over 60 miles from Key West, Florida. National Park Service personnel at the site were overwhelmed during New Year's weekend and closed the park. Another 606 migrants were stopped at sea from reaching the national park by federal law enforcement officials and were repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Homeland Security Task Force-Southeast stated on January 4 that all the migrants were removed from the park and sent to a facility in Key West for further processing. Dry Tortugas National Park reopened on Sunday to the public.
The reopening marks the end of one of the most dramatic episodes in the ongoing migration crisis, as authorities in Florida and at the U.S.-Mexico border contend with an unprecedented wave of migration from Cuba. More Cubans have arrived in the U.S. in the last year than did in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 Balsero crisis, as the communist nation struggles with economic downturns and growing political dissatisfaction with its governing class.
Border crossings by Cuban migrants have reached an all-time high: Over 220,000 Cubans attempted to cross the southern border illegally from December 2021 to December 2022, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Migrants are also making their way to the U.S. by sea. Since October, the Coast Guard has intercepted 3,700 Cubans at sea, already more than half than were intercepted in the previous 11 months.
For over six years, Cubans on the island could not apply for asylum or exit visas at the U.S. embassy in Havana after the Trump administration closed the embassy's visa operations. This forced Cubans to travel to Guyana, one of the few countries Cubans are allowed to visit, to apply for asylum, an expensive and inaccessible process for many on the island. Cubans would no longer be automatically allowed to stay and pursue residency if they reached U.S. territory, as was the case before the Obama administration ended the "Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot" policy in 2017. So the suspension of visa services in Havana drove many to risk the voyage across the Straits of Florida or through Central America to the southern border, usually with the help of smugglers.
An increased number of Haitians have also fled their country, attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border amid ongoing gang violence, disease outbreaks, and political instability that has worsened in recent months. The limited opportunities for requesting asylum beyond the border and new restrictions on Haitian immigration in countries like Brazil and Chile have prompted many to take the risks as well.
These arrivals have contributed to the broader crisis at the border. U.S. border authorities reported over 2 million migrant encounters in FY 2022. Many migrants came anticipating the end of Title 42, a pandemic-era measure implemented by the Trump administration that granted the federal government sweeping authority to immediately remove migrants upon their entry into the country.
Officials in Florida criticized the federal government for its delayed response to the migrant arrivals, with teams from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies often not responding until the next day following large arrivals. "This shows a lack of a working plan by the federal government to deal with a mass migration issue that was foreseeable," Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, who oversees law enforcement actions in the Keys, said in a press release.
Cuban-American lawmakers in Florida are blaming President Joe Biden for the migrant crisis, attributing the recent surge to what they see as a weak approach to relations with Havana and the government's failure to enhance border security.
"The Biden Administration's pathetic policy of appeasement and concessions to the brutal Castro regime combined with the President's unwillingness to secure our border, have created a migratory crisis that is directly impacting the Florida Keys," Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R–Fla.), whose district includes Dry Tortugas and the Keys, said in a press release. Florida lawmakers worry that without greater support and action from the federal government, the state will find itself unable to keep its maritime border safe and fail to keep up with the constant arrivals in the Florida Keys.
In response to this recent increase in migrant arrivals, Biden announced last week that Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans would no longer be exempted from expulsion under Title 42. Up to 30,000 unauthorized migrants from these countries will be sent back to Mexico every month once the policy takes effect. Asylum claims at the southern border will also be limited.
The administration also announced new pathways for asylum, allowing Cuban, Haitian, and Nicaraguan migrants to apply for asylum if they promise to work for two years and have a U.S.-based sponsor who can support them during that period, claiming it will provide for "orderly migration" for migrants seeking to come to the United States. The State Department has reopened visa services in Havana to help facilitate this new asylum process.
The White House has acknowledged that these policies will have a limited impact on the bigger crisis. Administration officials have publicly pointed the finger at Congress for its failure to pass immigration reform bills over the last few years, calling on Congress to take greater action in the coming months.
Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have decried the administration's moves. Democrats in particular have lambasted the White House for adopting some of the same policy approaches that they criticized the Trump administration for using.
Regardless of the changes and the dangers that accompany the treacherous journey, many of the migrants remain undeterred in their mission to reach the United States.
"I would prefer to die to reach my dream and help my family," Jeiler del Toro Diaz, a Cuban migrant who came ashore in Key Largo on Tuesday, told The Miami Herald. "The situation in Cuba is not very good."
With 25 migrants, mostly Haitians, landing on Fort Lauderdale Beach Tuesday night, there is no clear end in sight to the migrant crisis in Florida.