OFF THE FLORIDA KEYS, Fla. — Our journey began on water with federal agents from air and marine patrol. The team is a specialized law enforcement division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Their mission is to stop migrants from making it on land in the U.S. illegally.
“It’s getting tough because it’s a numbers game,” explained Interdiction Agent John Apollony, who has worked on the high seas in the Florida Keys since 2009.
If Florida is a gateway into the country, the Florida Keys is a 180-mile-long central hub where freedom-seeking migrants, mostly from Cuba and Haiti, are often willing to do anything and risk everything to get here.
“I’ve seen migrants who have shot themselves, people who have cut themselves. The thought process is if I injure myself enough, they have to take me to the hospital, and I can stay,” explained Agent Apollony.
With so much attention focused on the influx of migrants crossing the southwestern border, along Florida’s southeastern border, the increase in migrant landings and attempts is also on the rise.
“It’s the most I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Apollony said.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as of the end of September, more than half of all migrant interdictions at sea in the U.S. were conducted by the Miami Air & Marine branch, which includes the Florida Keys. This year, those units apprehended 139 migrants on water. For comparison, in 2021, that number was 54.
When asked if the country needed to do more to protect American borders, Agent Apollony replied, “everyone is doing what they can. We have a finite number of agents and assist, so with that being said; it does get tougher. The more they come, the harder it is on us."
To help control the surge, agents from borders around the country are doing a 30-day rotation in the Keys. One agent we met hailed from the northern border in Michigan.
Stopping people from entering the state illegally on the water begins with tracking them by air. Once crews in the air spot suspicious boats, the marine team moves in on high-tech vessels. Interdictions have become a daily, even multiple times a day event, explained Apollony.
While we were with him, it didn’t take long for the crew to get an alert about a rustic vessel and, possibly, a go-fast boat making their way closer to land.
Go-fast boats have long been used to smuggle in desperate migrants, who can pay thousands of dollars each to be hidden inside and transported by boat to the U.S.
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As we inch closer to the target, we’re able to see the boat is a homemade rustic boat known for its rickety build and, often, shoddy mechanics. It’s also packed with people, mostly men, and three women. All of them are from Cuba.
Apollony explained at times, crews have come across migrants on sea who have been in the U.S. before and have even been issued a Florida driver’s license.
“Yea, they’ll make it here and get some kind of status, then they go back for one reason or another,” he explained.
With partners from the U.S. Coast Guard in tow, the group of migrants we encountered were provided life jackets and immediately transferred to a federal vessel.
After getting the all-clear that it was safe to approach the migrants, they told us they had been traveling across the Atlantic Ocean for eight days and left Cuba because, “Cuba has nothing,” they said. The migrants smiled at us, waved at our cameras, and some even took out their own cell phones to capture the moment.
Since teams were able to interdict them at sea, the migrants will be transported to a Coast Guard cutter which will take them all back to Cuba.
The first interdiction of the day was complete.
“Everyone was safe, and everyone boarded safely, and that’s all you can hope for. Now it’s on to the next one,” Agent Apollony said.