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Agents work to combat uptick in migrant smuggling in Palm Beach County, Treasure Coast

661% increase in migrant encounters across South Florida, Customs and Border Protection reports
Posted at 8:05 PM, Feb 28, 2023

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — Migrant smuggling is increasing along Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, according to agents with Customs and Border Protection.

It is part of a 661% uptick in overall migrant encounters WPTV has been reporting from CBP, including a migrant encounter Monday off the Lake Worth Inlet.

"As a whole, and specifically South Florida, we have seen a dramatic increase in smuggling activity," Interdiction Agent Josh Williams with Air and Marine Operations said. "The narcotics flow has always been pretty steady, but the migrant flow has significantly increased.”

Agents said Monday they intercepted a 38-foot cabin cruiser about 3 miles east of the Lake Worth Inlet with 54 Haitian migrants on board.

RELATED: Migrant deaths rise as thousands brave dangerous seas to reach Florida

CBP agents are still investigating whether the case was a smuggling event, but it comes as agents intercepted a boat with 78 migrants smuggled into the St. Lucie Inlet last week.

Williams said the smuggling increase is unlike the situation in the Florida Keys, which see a lot of migrants coming from countries like Haiti or Cuba in makeshift boats, sometimes called "chugs" or in rafts.

"Obviously, the geographic location, they're closer, it makes sense," Williams said.

Josh Williams speaks about the challenges that federal agencies face intercepting migrants at sea.
Josh Williams speaks about the challenges that federal agencies face intercepting migrants at sea.

"They’re trying to come to the United States to better their lives," added Interdiction Agent Ryan Haines with the West Palm Beach Air and Marine Operation Unit.

Yet in Palm Beach County and on the Treasure Coast, Williams said that's not always the case.

"Usually it's always a network, so a lot of people haven't found their way here without a connection to a drug trafficking organization that's also working the migrant flow, and that's the issue," Williams said.

Agents said many of the boats are coming from the Bahamas, prompting both CBP and Bahamian authorities to work together to combat it.

"The Bahamas is like a corridor, just like the drugs, the people are smuggled through there," Williams said.

Because the Bahamas is a corridor, Williams said many people will come from all over the country to get smuggled into the United States.

"European nations, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, any continent you can think of, they're coming from," Williams said, "as long as you can get a plane ticket to Nassau, or one of those island nations, get yourself on a boat, you can work your way here."

According to a federal criminal complaint obtained by WPTV, on Feb. 19, at least three of the migrants on a boat coming to the Boynton Beach Inlet were from Ireland and paid a smuggler $50,000 to get them to the U.S.

Ryan Haines says not everyone who is trying to reach Florida's shores is seeking a better life, citing gang members trying to bring prostitutes into the U.S.
Ryan Haines says not everyone who is trying to reach Florida's shores is seeking a better life, citing gang members trying to bring prostitutes into the U.S.

Williams also said some of the people getting smuggled over are criminals, denied entry for a reason.

That was the case for one of the 78 people smuggled into the St. Lucie Inlet on a 58-foot yacht last week, according to another criminal complaint WPTV obtained.

According to agents at the scene, the others on that boat were packed in like sardines.

"These people are not treated as people," Williams said. "These people are treated as commodities, and that's tough to say, but that's the reality of what's going on."

"Then you have human trafficking, and you have people brought to the United States against their will," Haines added. "We've encountered MS13 gang members bringing women over for prostitution, individuals from China brought over as indentured servants. It's basically slave labor here."

The situation wears on Haines and other agents.

Aerial of overloaded sailboat filled with migrants in Biscayne Bay near Virginia Key, Jan. 12, 2023
An overloaded sailboat filled with migrants arrives in Biscayne Bay near Virginia Key, Jan. 12, 2023, in Miami.

"I mean, as a dad, you hate seeing the kids, and you have to think, how bad it must be for these people for them to make the journey," Haines said. "But if we could just tell them, if we could just send them a message, don't try it. Because of all the boats that we stop, those are the boats that we’re saving.”

With each patrol, Customs and Border Protection agents keep that in mind, hoping to put a stop to illegal activity and rescue those fallen victim to it.

"We've brought all our resources to bear, and it's great to have the agency rallying behind us," Haines said.

Agents also said another compounding factor is that many smugglers will do anything to avoid getting arrested.

According to the criminal complaint from the St. Lucie Inlet smuggling case on Feb. 22, agents believe the Bahamian captain accused of smuggling the 77 other migrants actually tied himself up and pretended to be taken hostage by the others on board to avoid arrest.

Agents also said part of the reason migrant smuggling has increased so drastically is the financial gain.

In many cases, people trying to come to the United States will pay $10,000 to 15,000 per person. Multiply that by the number of people on board some of these boats, and it's easily a multi-million dollar industry. The boats they are using are often Florida-registered and are stolen or bought cheap.