by Bethany Blankley
More than 500 foreign nationals were apprehended after attempting to illegally enter Florida on the first two days of the year, an unpreceded number, officials say. They arrived by boat mostly off the coast of the Florida Keys, prompting multiple agencies to issue warnings to Floridians and a national park was forced to close to the public.
The record number of apprehensions in first two days of the year was after the Miami Border Patrol Sector reported a more than a 500% increase in apprehensions in fiscal year 2022.
It was also after the sector apprehended a record 1,661 illegal foreign nationals and reported 107 gotaways in December, according to preliminary data obtained by The Center Square from a Border Patrol agent.
On Tuesday, Miami BP Sector Chief Patrol Agent Walter Slosar issued a warning to Floridians saying, “agents were on scene in Key Largo where a sailing vessel involving a large number of migrants made landfall. Please transit the area with caution and allow space for responding agencies.”
Slosar encouraged visitors and residents to report suspicious border activity anywhere in Florida by calling a newly established hotline: 877-772-8146.
National Park Police, U.S. Coast Guard, and all federal, state and local law enforcement partners were actively working “to protect our Florida border,” Slosar said, after Border Patrol agents “responded to a high volume of migrant landings in the Florida Keys” on New Year’s Eve. As a result, there was an “increased presence of law enforcement and first responders in the area,” he said.
Agents encountered over 160 people arriving in the Florida Keys in at least 10 separate landings starting on midnight on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day.
By Jan. 2, Dry Tortugas National Park announced it was temporarily closing and prohibiting public access as law enforcement and medical personnel dealt with a group of 300 people who’d arrived. The park would remain closed until everyone was transferred to Key West for processing.
“The closure, which is expected to last several days, is necessary for the safety of visitors and staff because of the resources and space needed to attend to the migrants,” the park announced. “Concession-operated ferry and sea plane services are temporarily suspended.”
It also issued a warning to residents and visitors stating: “Like elsewhere in the Florida Keys, the park has recently seen an increase in people arriving by boat from Cuba and landing on the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park. You may observe migrant landings at the park and visitor areas may be impacted.”
“While the park is closed, vessels may seek safe harbor in the designated areas within the one nautical mile anchoring zone around Garden Key, including Bird Key Harbor,” the warning states. “There will be no visitor services available while the closure is in effect and emergency services will be extremely limited.”
Dry Tortugas, a 100-square mile park, is mostly open water and only accessible by boat or seaplane. Located 70 miles west of Key West, it consists of seven keys collectively known as the Dry Tortugas.
It’s home to Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the U.S. built between 1846 and 1875 to protect America’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico and a major shipping channel.
“Irregular, illegal maritime migration is always dangerous and very often deadly,” Rear Adm. Brendan C. McPherson, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District and director of Homeland Security Task Force – Southeast, said, warning foreign nationals “Don’t take to the seas.”
In response to those who landed at the Dry Tortugas, McPherson said, “They will be removed, provided food, water and basic first aid before transfer to federal law enforcement agents in the Keys for processing by [Miami Sector Border Patrol] to determine their legal status to remain in the United States or be processed for removal and repatriation to their country of origin.”
Also on New Year’s Day, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tarpon’s crew transferred 25 foreign nationals to the Bahamas after apprehending them in a boat at sea near Cape Canaveral. Those apprehended were citizens of the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Venezuela. Lt. Commander Beal warned, “human smuggling is both unsafe and illegal.”
Also on Saturday, Cutter Richard Etheridge’s crew repatriated 80 Cubans they’d apprehended to Cuba. “These voyages are not only illegal, but also incredibly dangerous,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Estrada said.
The U.S. Coast Guard says any inquiries potential family members have about those who attempted to illegally enter Florida and were interdicted at sea to contact their local U.S. representative’s office. The Coast Guard “will not confirm the names of migrants in our custody out of concern for their privacy and safety,” it said.
The U.S. Coast Guard apprehended a record 2,723 Cubans between Oct. 1 and Dec. 10, 2022 – after they apprehended a record 6,182 in fiscal 2022, according to Coast Guard data. By comparison, they apprehended 49 Cubans in fiscal 2020.
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Bethany Blankley is a contributor to The Center Square.