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Fla. governor to deploy state troopers, state guard to southern coast amid Haiti crisis

Governor Ron DeSantis stated that he is deploying more than 250 state officers and soldiers as well helicopters, aircraft, drones and boats to enhance border security

Ron DeSantis

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)

Phil Sears/AP

By Syra Ortiz Blanes, Ana Ceballos, David Goodhue
Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With Haiti in disarray, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday the state will be sending hundreds of law enforcement officers and soldiers to patrol the southern coast of Florida to “combat illegal vessels” that may be carrying desperate Haitians fleeing a country whose government is under attack by gangs.

So far, a surge of migrants has not materialized in Florida. But DeSantis, who has taken measures to crack down on undocumented immigrants over the years, said in a statement that he is deploying more than 250 state officers and soldiers as well helicopters, aircraft, drones and boats to “protect our state” from arriving migrants.

The deployment will include up to 133 members of the Florida State Guard, a civilian military force under the governor’s command that has mainly responded to natural disaster emergencies. Last fall, a select group of State Guard members with the power to make arrests and carry weapons was trained to intercept migrants at sea at a Panhandle combat training facility.

“When a state faces the possibility of invasion, it has the right and duty to defend its territory and people,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida will act.”

Haiti in turmoil

Haiti is facing a political crisis that threatens to topple its government. Two weeks ago, gangs declared their intentions to overthrow Prime Minister Ariel Henry and have wreaked havoc on Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

Henry has since agreed to resign, but it’s uncertain who will lead the Caribbean country. The international community, along with Haitian political and civil society leaders, is trying to hash out a plan for transitional governance, but disagreements abound. Most of the capital is currently under criminal control, according to the United Nations.

So far, federal authorities have not seen an increase in migration from Haiti, Hansel Pintos, a spokesperson for Homeland Security, Task Force - Southeast Public Affairs, told the Miami Herald during an interview Wednesday morning.

“The task force is preparing to respond to any changes,” said Pintos, who added that the task force, which is made up of federal and state agencies, has been engaged in enhanced migration enforcement since August 2022.

Officials hope to stop Haitian boats before they come to Florida

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay told the Herald Tuesday that federal officials have spoken with him this week about having his deputies prepared for “an above-normal effort to leave Haiti and come to the U.S.” The Florida Keys saw the majority of Haitian and Cuban arrivals during the height of the exodus from those countries in 2022 and 2023.

“We’ve had some discussions with federal officials about the civil unrest in Haiti and the belief that more Haitian sail freighters may be trying to get to the United States,” Ramsay said.

Ramsay’s deputies were often the first contacts for Cubans and Haitians arriving in large numbers throughout the island chain between 2022 and 2023. Most of the migrants were coming from Cuba on small boats. This happened several times a day at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023.

But, there were also large, overloaded vessels from Haiti showing up on several occasions, carrying hundreds of people. So many people were landing in the Keys during that time that sheriff deputies had to wait with them for hours on the side of U.S. 1 until overwhelmed Border Patrol agents could arrive in vans to pick them up.

This took them away from their regular law enforcement duties, prompting Ramsay to complain about a lack of federal and state resources in the area. Ramsey’s complaints played a key role in DeSantis’ January 2023 executive order to send the Florida National Guard and state police officers to the county to help patrol the air and water leading to the archipelago. Ramsay said federal officials told him this week that they are hoping to stop migrant vessels from leaving Haiti, but some could get past their patrols.

“They told us they are going to try to put more resources in that area to ward off any mass evacuations and for us to be vigilant for the potential for more migrants coming from Haiti,” he said.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wrote to President Joe Biden in a letter on Tuesday that the crisis in Haiti “has profound implications for Miami-Dade County due to our significant Haitian community and proximity to the island.” She requested multi agency community briefings.

Migrants stopped near the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico

On March 8, the marine unit of Turks and Caicos’ police force said they had stopped a 25-foot power boat carrying 31 Haitian migrants in Northern Caicos. There were 22 men and nine women on board, according to island authorities.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s 7th District, which is headquartered in Miami and has operations from Florida to South Carolina, announced it had repatriated 65 Haitians from a distressed boat in the Bahamas on Monday. Including Monday’s repatriation, the District has repatriated 131 Haitians since Oct. 1, the beginning of the government’s fiscal year.

Puerto Rico is also a point of destination for Haitians, who depart on rickety boats from the neighboring Dominican Republic. Smugglers often abandon the migrants on tiny and remote Mona Island, a nature reserve that sits between the American territory and Hispaniola.

The Coast Guard told the Miami Herald that they have interdicted 41 Haitians in waters near Puerto Rico and the Mona Passage as of Feb. 29. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection headquartered in Puerto Rico has apprehended 112 Haitian nationals since Oct. 1. So far, the flow of Haitians in the Mona Passage is lower compared to last year.

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