Despite repeated warnings about the dangers of the sea and the coldness of a migrant smuggler’s heart, the lure of a better life in South Florida endures.
The latest tragic evidence played out early Thursday on a beach in Fort Lauderdale when at least one person in a group of at least 20 died and several others remain unaccounted for, officials said. The refugees are believed to be Haitian.
“The waters can be very deceiving, and the smugglers who bring them in don’t care about the migrants,” said Elee Erice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “All they care about is the money.”
In recent months, U.S. officials have noted a rise in the number of smugglers attempting to bring people ashore in South Florida and Puerto Rico by crossing the treacherous Mona Pass from the Dominican Republic.
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“We were getting one or two reports a week of people saying they saw people run ashore,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney. “Now it’s three or more.
“Even when they have a good vessel, they make them jump off into cold water. They are dehydrated, they could be caught in a rip current. And it’s illegal.”
Witnesses said the migrants Thursday jumped from a blue-hulled vessel and swam to shore. Some wore life vests, others did not, Barney said.
Authorities were alerted to their arrival when a resident of the Lago Mar neighborhood reported seeing a group on the beach around 6 a.m., Fort Lauderdale police said.
Officers from the city and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol went to the 1800 block of South Ocean Lane to launch the search, officials said. Eight migrants, mostly women, were quickly found; one on the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island near Cortez Street .
The eight were in federal custody late Thursday and each of their cases would be reviewed, an immigration official said.
The search for several others continued through the day.
Detective DeAnna Greenlaw said city lifeguards rescued three persons from the rough surf and administered CPR. One of them was not wearing a life vest and was later pronounced dead at Broward Health Medical Center.
Marco Arroyo, 20, who planned to surf before class, came across the rescue scene Thursday morning. Lifeguards pulled two persons drifting together from the ocean, he said.
Less than an hour later, a lifeguard plucked another person from the water whose body was limp and who appeared unconscious, Arroyo said.
“It was definitely surreal. I wasn’t expecting to see this,” Arroyo said. “I was just expecting good waves.”
Although several local and federal agencies were involved during the day-long search for other survivors, an investigation into the incident is now headed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “This was a smuggling operation,” said spokesman Nestor Yglesias.
He said no smuggler was in custody and the vessel used had not been recovered.
Since the 1980s, thousands of Haitians have died trying to enter the U.S. Last year the U.S. Coast Guard made an effort to stem the flow with public service announecments in English and Creole pointing out the dangers. Television spots included video of migrants leaping into the water from a capsized boat while members of the Haitian community repeat, “Do not take to the sea.”
But the poverty of Haiti and the hope of Haitians to improve their situation is as constant as the tide.
“Haiti is not perfect, and people are always seeking to get something better,” said Jean Souffrant, program director at Miami’s Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church, “They leave thinking about how to serve their famiulies better and not about these tragedies.
“We may never know exactly what happened here,” said Souffrant. “But at the end of the day, the message is the same: taking to the sea can be dangerous.”
Yglesias said anyone with information about the latest incident should call ICE at 866-347-2423.
Staff photographer Joe Cavaretta contributed to this report.