Sheriff: ‘Unprecedented’ humanitarian crisis unfolds in Florida Keys

Record numbers of migrants flow in over weekend

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – At least 500 migrants have landed in the Florida Keys over the last several days in what the local sheriff’s office described on Monday as a “crisis.”

Economic turmoil, food shortages and soaring inflation in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean is spurring the most recent wave of migration.

Over the weekend, 300 migrants arrived at the sparsely populated Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West. The park was closed so that law enforcement and medical personnel could evaluate the group before moving them to Key West, the park tweeted.

Separately, 160 migrants arrived by boats in other parts of the Florida Keys over the New Year’s Day weekend, officials said.

Migrants were being offloaded at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Dania Beach.

That’s where Lazaro Rodriguez waited for word about his brother, one of the hundreds of migrants detained over the weekend.

“Everything is bad (in Cuba),” Rodriguez said.

Local 10 News spoke to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay Monday, who described an “unprecedented” situation in the Keys amid a surge in migrants from Cuba and Haiti.

He said officials responded to a record 10 migrant landings Sunday.

And according to National Park Service officials, it’s the first time Dry Tortugas National Park has been shut down due to migrant landings.

“I’ve never heard that occurring. I’ve never heard that becoming a staging point to stage migrants,” Ramsay said. “Now, migrants have landed there, but never stopped the operation of the park. Nor was it ever used in this capacity to drop off, house or stage migrants. So this is, I think, definitely unheard of, unprecedented.”

Ramsay criticized the federal response to the surge in migrant landings, saying they were straining local resources.

After 43 migrants came ashore in Islamorada Monday, Ramsay said federal officials told the sheriff’s office that the federal response to some of the migrant landings may have to wait a day because U.S. Border Patrol agents were so busy.

“You want 43 people from a foreign country that don’t know the language, don’t know anybody, have no money, no resources to what — sit on the side of the road for day and a half?” he said.

Ramsay said Border Patrol agents “do a great job, the best they can” but are being hamstrung by a lack of resources.

“The higher-ups don’t seem to have a working strategy plan to deal with what I consider a mass migration here,” he said.

The sheriff said the influx of landings is straining his resources as well. Deputies are being sent to “repeated” 911 calls about migrant landings, he said.

“What happens is, as people drive by, they see these large groups, they think that these people just arrived,” Ramsay said. “So it overwhelms our dispatch center. We keep getting repeated calls about hey, this is 40 to 50 people, it looks like a migrant landing. So the resources keep getting called. Sometimes we have to send out additional officers to check to make sure it’s the same load, not a new load that came in.”

Ramsay laid blame for the surge on the White House and its immigration policies.

“I hate to get politics involved,” he said. “But this is manmade. This is a manmade crisis.”

Ramsay blamed what he described as “open border” policies and a lack of action by the Biden administration for creating a “humanitarian crisis” at both land and sea borders.

“You see the states that get it, they want to make sure their states and communities are safe, and the federal government won’t let the state politicians keep their states safe,” Ramsay said. “It’s very frustrating.”

The U.S. Homeland Security Task Force - Southeast tweeted Sunday that it and partner agencies “are coordinating efforts to recover those currently stranded on the remote, uninhabited islands.”

Officials at Dry Tortugas National Park said they expected it be closed for several days because of the space and resources needed to attend to the migrants.

“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,” the National Park Service said in a news release.

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.