U.S. Coast Guard crews came upon a harrowing scene in dark waters seven miles off Miami Beach on Wednesday:
Ten migrants believed to be from Haiti and Jamaica, including a 15-year-old girl, were clinging to the hull of a capsized motorboat shortly after 1 a.m. One of them was showing signs of seizures.
Underneath the boat, one survivor gasped for breath in a small air pocket. Next to him floated the bodies of four dead women who were killed in the vessel’s violent flip.
The body count may have been higher if not for one of the survivors, who used a cellphone to call 911 and report the boat’s approximate location.
Rescuers searched the waters southeast of Government Cut, the entrance to PortMiami, for hours Wednesday, looking for other possible survivors or victims. The 11 who lived, including the man treated for seizure symptoms at Mount Sinai, were being questioned by border authorities.
About 9 a.m., Coast Guard officials said they were confident that everyone aboard the migrants’ 25-foot white boat had been accounted for.
“It was difficult to ascertain truly how many people were on this overloaded vessel,” said Commander Darren Caprara, chief response officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami.
He noted that the boat’s center console was cut out, and no one aboard the overcrowded vessel wore life jackets.
“It was a very, very dangerous voyage,” Caprara said. “Fifteen people on a 25-foot boat is a lot.”
Still unclear late Wednesday: the victims’ identities, where the migrants’ boat originated from, and what will happen to the ones who were plucked from the sea.
Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, said her group was prepared to help grieving family members.
“We are gravely concerned by the increased number of Haitian refugees who are risking their lives in search of a safe haven,” Bastien said.
“Historically, this push to leave Haiti is the result of increased uncertainty in the nation and political instability,” she continued. “Our hope is that our leaders get their act together to stabilize [Haiti] and uphold the human rights of those clamoring for change.”
Once in U.S. custody, Haitian and Jamaican migrants may ask for asylum, after which asylum officers would determine whether each one has a “credible fear” of being returned home.
If they pass the credible-fear test, the migrants would have their cases heard in front of immigration judges. A win there would allow them to be freed and to apply for a green card after a year in the United States. If they lose, including appeals, they would be deported.
A separate policy known as wet foot/dry foot applies to undocumented Cuban migrants. Those caught at sea are generally returned to the island nation, while those who reach U.S. land can stay.
The Coast Guard frequently intercepts migrants and migrant smugglers on or near South Florida’s shores.
In 2002, a group of 202 Haitians splashed onto Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway — an especially popular landing area for migrants, where toll-booth operators are known to give out hot coffee and food while migrants wait for authorities to show up.
One Haitian migrant died and 101 others made it safely to shore in Hallandale Beach in 2007 before being rounded up by customs officers.
In 2009, 10 Haitian migrants died and 15 Haitians and one Jamaican were rescued after their boat, coming from the Bahamas, capsized off Boynton Beach. The man hired to captain the boat and another man, both Haitians, were sentenced to 14 and 13 years in prison, respectively, for alien smuggling resulting in death.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard reported picking up 508 Haitians and 1,357 Cubans at sea. Since Oct. 1, the agency has reported picking up 93 Haitians and 117 Cubans.
Officials in the Caribbean also have seen a jump in the number of arrests of Haitians making their way to Puerto Rico. An increasing number of Haitians have tried that route because if they can reach the U.S. territory without getting arrested, they can fly on to Miami, Boston or New York without a passport.
Smugglers charge $1,500 and up to lead migrants on dangerous nighttime voyages originating from Hispaniola, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands. Often, relatives of the migrants who live in South Florida pay the smuggling fee.
The smugglers tell migrants “they are taking them to Miami,” but instead drop them in Puerto Rico, said Francois Guillaume, Haiti’s consul general for Miami.
“That’s very alarming,” said Guillaume, who has visited Puerto Rico three times in recent months to address the smuggling issue. “Puerto Rico is not used to seeing this influx of Haitians.”
Guillaume said he is working with U.S. and Haitian officials to start a campaign that highlights how dangerous smuggling trips are.
“When somebody hears about a boat that arrived, people in Haiti tend to think, ‘This really does work,’” he said. “But what they don’t hear about is all those journeys where people died. We don’t know how many people have died trying to take the journey.”