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We're in a Crisis: FL Keys Officials Say Illegal Boating Landings Have Become a Major Problem


KEY WEST, Fla. — Officials in the Florida Keys are sounding the alarm over the historic influx of people, mainly from Cuba and Haiti, illegally landing in their small communities as the islands are not equipped to handle such large numbers of people as the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border soaks up most of the attention.

What has been playing out in the Keys is identical to what has been occurring at the southern border since Joe Biden became president: Small towns being unable to deal with large numbers of people illegally entering the country, just with nicer beaches. Key West's population is around 25,000 and Marathon's population is just under 10,000.

"We're in a humanitarian crisis, there's no doubt. We've been building out for months, because we have a very close relationship with our Coast Guard, and they've been seeing an uptick in interdictions that they have not seen in their history, so it's a humanitarian crisis," Key West Mayor Teri Johnston told Townhall.

Johnston said the community has always been welcoming with Cubans who managed to make it to the island but, "It's a situation where we need to follow a policy. We need to have a policy and procedure for people to get here safely and then to become citizens legally."

George Garrett, the city manager for Marathon, said historically it was not an issue in terms of capacity when they would get one boat landing per week or one per month "but when they start showing up in numbers like several per day and you don't know precisely where they gonna come to shore. You see individuals, who many have come ashore, running down the street and you don't know who they are. I don't think personally, or even a standpoint from the city, these are really security issues but you do have people who simply have come from somewhere else."

Over the New Year holiday, Garrett said there were approximately 1,500 people who had illegally landed throughout the Keys and that created capacity issues since law enforcement is not equipped to house that many people while they are waiting to be processed.

"It's not some sort of political issue, which sometimes it's made, it's simply a process issue. How do you manage 1,000 to 1,500 coming to shore when they are being processed and then in that process, they're being held someplace in not ideal conditions always because we're not prepared for it," Garrett added.

Both Johnston and Garrett were happy to see the increased presence from the Florida National Guard and state law enforcement, which will relieve pressure from local police from having to divert manpower to shore duty. 

"I certainly appreciate the fact that our law enforcement agencies are getting assistance because they're overwhelmed," Johnston said. "It's really important that we do get some assistance and it's federally backed. And that we continue to receive these people humanely and compassionately."

"The fact that the executive order came out has been made very clear in its result and that is we've got multiple additional personnel and a broad range of agencies showing up in the Keys. There are additional Florida Highway Patrol officers, the city of Marathon has a pod for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at city hall," Garrett explained. "I'm looking out my window, which looks at the Marathon airport, yesterday and I see Blackhawks landing at the airport."

To highlight just how far north some of the boats show up in the Keys, the U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol reported on Thursday a boat full of Haitians showed up outside of Virginia Key, which is just off the coast from Miami. They were taken off the boat and into custody.

When it comes to who or what is to blame for the increase in illegal boat landings, Johnston and Garrett did not solely blame one thing.

"You know, something has happened in Haiti. Something has happened in Cuba to make life intolerable for people so that they risk their lives removing themselves from the situation. Immigration policy transcends both parties. I mean, everyone certainly could have done a better job in this to create a situation where we can accept residents from around the world into the United States safely. So I think there's a lot of room for blame to go all around the table," said Johnston.

"I honestly don't know, personally. What happens in Cuba, I don't have a clue," Garrett said, jokingly adding he would not be surprised to see the Cuban military allowing people to leave the country so the government has fewer people to take care of, "Don't know whether if it's true or not but we do know it's a resource based issue."

"We have been overwhelmed by the fact people have been showing up...I don't care whose administration is pointing at whom. The issue is there and we all need to get together and solve the problem and work on it, rather than pointing fingers at each other. We need to be pointing fingers at the problem and solving it," he added.


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