Cuban raft could be a new arrival or a relic of wet-foot, dry-foot

Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy James Hager inspects a makeshift vessel beached on Harry Harris Park in Tavernier on Wednesday, Feb. 15
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy James Hager inspects a makeshift vessel beached on Harry Harris Park in Tavernier on Wednesday, Feb. 15

A makeshift vessel that floated to shore off the Upper Keys this week likely ferried Cuban migrants to South Florida, but when they arrived is not clear. If they came this week, that would likely be the first landing in South Florida since the Obama administration ordered an end to a policy that granted arriving Cubans refugee status.

The rustic pontoon boat was found Wednesday tied to the mangroves of Harry Harris Park, off the ocean side of U.S. 1 around mile marker 92 in Tavernier. Boaters saw it floating further offshore Tuesday afternoon. An officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission towed it to shore.

Marine Deputy James Hager of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said the boat was likely stuck on an island and recently broke free, becoming a navigational hazard. At first, Hager thought the boat was a derelict vessel that arrived more than a month ago, prior to Obama’s order, but now he’s not so sure.

“There could have been migrants on it,” Hager said. “Either they made it here, and we didn’t know about it, or it could have been an old vessel.”

What makes Hager think the boat may have recently arrived is it lacks some of the tell-tale signs of derelict craft.

“There’s not a lot of barnacles on it,” he said. “There’s no telling if it’s been out there a long time or not.”

Maritime migration from Cuba to Florida has all but come to a halt since President Obama, in one of his most significant last acts in office, ended last month the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which essentially treated every Cuban who reached U.S. shores as a refugee. It was a 1995 change to the Cold War-era Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

Under the policy, those stopped by U.S. authorities at sea were sent back to Cuba. But Cubans who reached land in the States could stay and apply for permanent residency after a year. In the year preceding Obama’s order ending wet-foot, dry-foot, Cuban migration through all points of entry spiked because of the then-president thawing diplomatic ties with the Castro regime. Cubans correctly feared Obama would one day end the policy and left in droves before the proverbial door shut.

In fiscal year 2016, more than 56,000 Cubans entered the U.S. either by sea or land across the Mexican border. According to numbers compiled by the Pew Research Center, that was more than double the number that arrived in fiscal year 2014.

U.S. Coast Guard crews were interdicting between 15 and 20 migrants at sea in the Florida Straits daily during that time frame, said Capt. Jeffrey Janszen, commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West. That number has dropped precipitously, Janszen said.

“We interdicted appropriately 25 Cuban migrants since the policy change,” he said.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner said this week that he’s not aware of any landings in the Keys since Obama’s order.

Reporter diving columnist Don Rhodes contributed to this report.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204