10 migrants come ashore in Manalapan; Haitian activist anticipates more

September 22, 2014|By Brett Clarkson and Adam Sacasa, Sun Sentinel

Ten people from four different countries were in federal custody after a suspected human-smuggling boat arrived on shore of the wealthy town of Manalapan early Monday, according to border authorities.

The migrants, none of whom had any documentation to enter the U.S. legally, included two Cubans, two Jamaicans, five Haitians, and one Sri Lankan, said U.S. Border Patrol agent Frank Miller.

One of them was a child who was accompanied by one of the adult passengers, he said.

The smuggling vessel, a 14-foot go-fast boat powered by an 80-horsepower engine, landed in the 1900 block of South Ocean Boulevard. It is thought to have originated in The Bahamas, Miller said.

Based on evidence from the operation, authorities suspect another smuggling operation also landed somewhere in South Florida early Monday, Miller said. Late Monday, no other migrants had been taken into custody.

An increasing number of maritime smuggling operations have been thwarted by federal law enforcement, say officials with Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"This fiscal year we have experienced an increase in human smuggling through the maritime approach," Miller said.

While it's common for Cubans, Jamaicans, and Haitians to try to enter the U.S. by boat, the presence of a Sri Lankan person is "unusual," Miller said, adding that investigators were hoping to glean more information by interviewing the migrants.

The migrants were taken into custody and were being processed, Miller said. Federal law allows Cubans who arrive on American land to become permanent residents on a path to citizenship. The others' cases will be considered individually, Miller said.

Under federal immigration law announced after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Haitians in the U.S. who don't have serious criminal records can apply to stay in the U.S.

Such smuggling operations are facilitated by criminal organizations, Miller said, adding that the organizations are doing their homework and utilizing lookouts on land in an attempt to keep tabs on law enforcement activities on the border.

"These are planned events, coordinated by very sophisticated organizations, to the point where they have counter surveillance on the U.S. side," Miller said.

The smugglers have very specific instructions for their human cargo, he said. They'll leave markers, such as something placed in a palm tree, or a box or some other object on the beach, as a signal to a boat's occupants. A pick-up vehicle will often be awaiting them.

If faced with potential capture, they're told to hide wherever they can, in mangroves, backyards or grocery stores, Miller said.

The number of Haitians attempting to reach South Florida by boat will likely increase because of the worsening political and economic climate there, said a prominent South Florida Haitian community leader.

"In the case of Haiti, when you follow the migration flow, you can see that Haitians usually come when there is high level of political instability and uncertainty about the future," said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami).

She said that such uncertainty is ramping up now in Haiti thanks to stalled elections, the house arrest of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a cholera epidemic, and lagging rebuilding efforts after the 2010 earthquake.

"[It] is very worrisome because of the loss of the life that will occur," Bastien said.

Some of the recent smuggler operations have originated in The Bahamas. The islands have become a launching point to South Florida simply because of geography, Miller said. The journey from West End to Palm Beach is a straight shot of about 64 miles.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor, chief of law enforcement for Miami's 7th District, said Bahamas' visa policies are one reason why he sometimes sees a wide range of people trying to get into the U.S. from the Bahamas.

According to the Bahamas tourist office, 153 countries don't require visas for visiting the country. That's led him to see immigrants from Brazil, eastern Europe and other countries.

"That makes it easy to get into the Bahamas and that's concerning from a security perspective," Fedor said.

The concern is caused by what Fedor describes as a steady, upward trend of the number of migrants being intercepted since 2009.

The number of Haitians intercepted this fiscal year reached 5,400 compared with 4,350 last year, Fedor said.

The number of Cubans intercepted reached 3,600 since the start of this fiscal year in October compared with 2,120 last year.

But the quality of the boats is only one factor making the trip so dangerous. Even after making it across the Atlantic, Fedor said smugglers sometimes just push adults and children overboard without life jackets before getting to shore.

"If we don't interdict you, you can just end up missing at sea," Fedor said. "If you're thinking about migration, it's not worth it to put your live in the hands of these ruthless smugglers."

brettclarkson@sun-sentinel.com, 561-243-6609, or Twitter @BrettClarkson_