KEY WEST, Fla. — Outside the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Marathon Key recently, investigative reporter Katie LaGrone met Omar Carcache as he waited to pick up his nephew he hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.
“At 5:30 this morning, he called me and said I’m here. I said, where? He said I’m here in Marathon. I was like, 'Oh my goodness,''" said Carcache.
His nephew arrived in Cuba after traveling by boat from Cuba. He joined hundreds of Cuban migrants who landed in the Florida Keys in the last month.
Incidents of people making the treacherous journey by sea and landing on dry ground in Florida illegally are up more than 450% since October of last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol.
Many migrants who land in South Florida come from nearby Haiti and Cuba because of the proximity to the islands.
“They have no food, no power, no lights, no nothing, that’s no life,” explained Carcache, who also arrived on Florida shores from Cuba illegally after traveling by boat here nearly 30 years ago.
“Most of these people would rather die trying to get here to freedom than stay in Cuba. It’s very sad,” he said.
It’s a dangerous voyage to freedom that's overwhelming federal agents across South Florida.
For two days, we were granted exclusive access to the round-the-clock battle to secure Florida borders amid the historic surge in migrant landings and attempts by migrants to reach land.
“It’s the heaviest migrant traffic I’ve ever encountered,” said Interdiction Agent John Apollony with Customs & Border Protection’s air and marine team in Marathon. He has been patrolling waters in the Keys since 2009 and told us intercepting migrants trying to get to land has become a daily event for them.
During a 24-hour period we were on location with crews, Miami Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner with U.S. Border Patrol told us more than a dozen migrant landings had occurred across the Keys. The 180 miles of coastline that make up the Florida Keys is the state’s top seaside entry point for migrants seeking entry into the state illegally.
At one point during our trip to the Keys, nearly 30 migrant men and women from Cuba landed near the U.S. Navy Base in Key West around 1:30 in the morning. Among them was a 22-year-old woman who agreed to speak with us on camera.
She explained her group had traveled for three days in a rickety boat that had mechanical issues. At one point, their small boat was being circled by sharks, she told us. When asked why she made the dangerous high seas trip, she told us she wanted to find opportunities and work in America so she could help her family back home in Cuba.
The woman, and each of the individuals she came with, were patted down for drugs or weapons and then loaded into government vans. They were then taken north to Marathon and processed at the U.S. Border Patrol station there.
For months, the waves of migrants coming in and out of the border patrol station in the Keys have been non-stop.
“Every surge has its own challenges,” said Patrol Agent in Charge Peter Daniel. “I think we’re doing everything we can,” he said.
Agent Daniel granted our cameras limited access inside the patrol station. He showed us the intake area where migrants are first given dry, clean clothing. Storage bins of non-perishable food and drinks are also on hand at the station. We noticed packages of diapers, formula even car seats.
We asked Agent Daniel if they get a lot of young children coming by boat with their families.
“We’ve taken in migrant families before with younger children, so yeah,” he told us.
We walk a little further to what’s known as the detention cell area. It’s there where each person is held in a group holding cell and separated by gender.
We weren’t allowed to videotape the cells, but migrants can spend up to 72 hours at the station being processed while they’re ID’d, fingerprinted, and background checked. If someone is found to have a criminal record, their processing turns from administrative processing to criminal processing.
For migrants who are not sent back to their countries immediately, they can be transferred to a federal detention facility or released to family while their legal case moves through the U.S. court system.
Outside the patrol station, Omar Carcache waited anxiously to see his nephew walk out of the sally port area of station.
“I lived in Cuba for 33 years, and I was never free. I put my foot in this country, and I felt the freedom,” he said.
Carcache described how his own perilous trek three decades ago resulted in the death of four people on his boat, including a 10-year-boy, he said. The memory still haunts him.
“They were all screaming. I don’t want to talk about it. I still have nightmares from that,” he said.
As he waited for his nephew, he saw one man walk out of the station.
“Very excited! Wow, I’m emotional,” he said as he wiped his eyes in anticipation.
After a few anxious moments, he spotted his nephew, who is now about 6 feet tall.
“Wow, he’s big,” he said about his 33-year-old family member.
They embraced, both of them very emotional. The nephew told us his trek over the water was frightening but worth it. His plan is to work in Florida and try to bring his wife and young son over eventually.
The reunion of the two men perhaps best describes the complexities of the nation’s immigration system, the debates, and what’s at stake if nothing or everything changes.