Seeking to escape violence and economic unrest at home, more migrant groups from Cuba, Haiti and other countries are taking risky voyages to reach Florida and Puerto Rico.
The Straits of Florida is a relatively narrow sea channel separating the U.S. from Cuba and the Bahamas. It carries the powerful Florida Current east around the Florida Keys and Miami, then swings north along the Atlantic coast to become the Gulf Stream.
Cuba is about 90 miles south across the Straits from Key West, Fla. Bimini, in the Bahamas, is roughly 50 miles east of Miami. Between 2018 and 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard saw about 5,000 Haitian and Cuban migrants headed toward the Florida and Puerto Rican coasts.
From the start of the U.S. government’s fiscal year in October to May, Coast Guard officials have intercepted more than 7,100 people just from Haiti and Cuba, mostly in the Straits of Florida.
Bryan Cereijo for The Wall Street Journal
Buffeted by gang violence and economic turmoil at home, migrant groups of primarily Cubans, Haitians and Dominicans are making the voyage to the U.S. in growing numbers, sometimes turning to human-smugglers to get them across.
Historically, migration routes focused on getting to mainland Florida or the Keys. For Cubans, this means a fairly straight shot in rustic, makeshift vessels sometimes referred to as “chugs,” but Haitians typically take routes through or near the Bahamas in “sail freighters”—old, overloaded sailboats.
Bryan Cereijo for The Wall Street Journal
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Departures from the Bahamas frequently involve organized smuggling ventures that charge migrants $3,000 to $6,000 a person. In March, the Coast Guard and Royal Bahamas Defence Force intercepted more than 200 Haitians aboard a sail freighter about 40 miles off Andros Island.
U.S. Coast Guard District 7
But increasingly, migrants are also choosing another route: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic share a strait as well—the Mona Passage—that can be as narrow as 70 miles across.
In Puerto Rico, apprehensions of migrants by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Ramey Sector in Aguadilla reached 1,293 from October to May, nearly five times the figure in the same period a year ago.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Some migrants have been dropped by smugglers without provisions on uninhabited islands off the coast, where Coast Guard crews routinely spot remnants of boats, discarded motors and occasionally stranded migrants themselves.
Petty Officer Third Class Ashley J. Johnson/U.S. Coast Guard District 7
The recent spike in crossings is likely driven by a combination of factors, including political instability in both Haiti and Cuba, the Covid-19 pandemic, and restrictive policies to quickly turn away many people who attempt to enter the U.S. illegally by land from Mexico, researchers and immigration lawyers said.
The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse last year created a power vacuum in the impoverished nation and set off a period marked by increasing kidnappings and gang violence.
Orlando Barria/EFE/Zuma, Previous: Reuters
Cuba, meanwhile, is struggling to recover from an economic collapse brought on by the pandemic while its government continues to target political dissidents, including people who participated in last summer’s nationwide protests.
Natalia Favre/Bloomberg News
Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. gave Cuban immigrants a special exception, known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay while those caught in transit were sent back. Then-President Barack Obama ended the policy in 2017.
Migrants caught at sea are generally returned to their home country within about a week, according to the Coast Guard.
Nearly all Cubans who get to the U.S.—either by sea or from Mexico—have been allowed to stay while their cases are processed by federal immigration judges, because the Cuban government generally won’t accept them back.
Cuban migrants ate dinner at a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the border from Laredo, Texas, in 2017.
Haitians, in contrast, have largely been returned to the island under a public-health law known as Title 42, implemented at the start of the pandemic. After about 16,000 Haitians crossed the U.S.-Mexican border last September, the U.S. started flying those migrants back to Haiti.
Crossing the Florida Current is hazardous even for the largest ships, said Nick Shay, a University of Miami professor who uses radar to study and measure the Straits. The surface current is fast, nearly 6 miles an hour, and winds of 10 to 20 mph aren’t uncommon, he said, which can combine to make for a rough crossing.
Upper Ocean Dynamics Laboratory/UM Rosenstiel School, Data supported by SECOORA
Hurricanes in the area, Dr. Shay said, can pull energy from the warm current and strengthen, as was the case with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Typical Florida afternoon pop-up storms, while largely unaffected by the current itself, nonetheless pose an additional threat.
Another issue for boaters is that the current meanders and changes size, meaning that migrants often aren’t fully aware of ocean conditions. And if a boat takes on water or people fall overboard, they can drift a long way before being spotted by a search party, Dr. Shay said.
U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters
Cover photo: Cutter Campbell crew/U.S. Coast Guard District 7
Credits photo: Gregory Ewald/U.S. Coast Guard/Getty