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Jupiter migrant landing exemplifies danger facing migrants, agents at sea

'I've seen them basically abandon them on the vessel, which becomes an incredibly dangerous situation,' Customs and Border Protection marine interdiction agent John Apollony says
Posted at 9:47 PM, Aug 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-25 21:54:16-04

JUPITER, Fla. — Friday's migrant encounter in Jupiter isn't the first time agents have seen boat captains take drastic measures to get to land.

Shortly after 9 a.m. Friday, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office said their marine unit intercepted a boat with 14 migrants on board east of the Jupiter inlet.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office said as deputies made contact with the boat's captain, Bazaeluis Francois, 30, rammed his boat into the PBSO marine unit, damaging its two engines.

Francois, who is now in the custody of the sheriff's office, is being investigated as a potential human smuggler, according to federal agents.

Yet it's not the first time agents have told WPTV they've seen violence from smugglers, both toward law enforcement intercepting them and the migrants they carry; and that's not the only danger migrants coming across face.

A suspected migrant boat beached just north of the Juno Beach Pier on Aug. 25, 2023.jpg

Juno Beach

14 migrants detained after boat rams sheriff's office marine vessel, takes off

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In May, WPTV rode along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol agents in the Florida Keys.

During the ride along, a call came over the radio for a migrant boat coming from Cuba and heading for the Keys.

As WPTV responded along with agents, we saw 16 migrants packed onto a makeshift boat formed by metal drums welded together. The migrants on board were so dehydrated and malnourished that at least one needed medical attention.

"That's not uncommon, especially considering the length of their voyage," marine interdiction agent John Apollony said.

It was a harsh reality to see, but the conditions they suffered through are frighteningly common, and apply to many of the bigger, fishing yachts that make landfall in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

Marine interdiction agents tell WPTV that when migrants are smuggled on those boats, they're often packed in like sardines, without proper food, water and without life jackets.

WPTV saw more than 70 migrants from Haiti smuggled into the St. Lucie Inlet like that in February.

Marine interdiction agent John Apollony discusses the dangers of human smuggling at sea.
Marine interdiction agent John Apollony discusses the dangers of human smuggling at sea.

In a video taken by Robin Elia, many of the migrants coming off the boat in Jupiter on Friday could be seen staggering onto the sand.

"There is absolutely the human aspect of the job when you encounter migrants, especially when they've been on a long voyage, they have children, are exposed to the elements if they're sick," Apollony said. "As a human being, it can take its toll on you."

Dehydration is far from the only danger facing migrants, however. Apollony said just as Francois rammed the PBSO marine unit to avoid arrest, smugglers often turn violent toward law enforcement intercepting them and have no regard for the lives of the migrants they carry across.

"These criminal organizations are in the business of making money," Apollony said. "I've seen them basically abandon them on the vessel, which becomes an incredibly dangerous situation, you know, some people can't swim or they're tired or they're sick."

Because of the danger, agents hope others realize why they're urged not to make the trip.

Yet despite the danger, as WPTV interviewed one migrant coming from Cuba, it's clear the reason people do come is out of desperation.

"The only thing I am looking for is my freedom, in the country where I live I have six kids, and I can't give them what they need. That's why I gambled our lives in the sea," said the man from Cuba, who didn't want to give his name. "I don't like to involve myself in politics, but I'm telling you, there's nothing, nothing, nothing. The most I can tell you is, as long as I can, I am going to keep trying, even if I get eaten by a shark."

The migrant landing marks the first in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast area all summer.

Earlier, U.S. Border Patrol's Adam Hoffner told WPTV that despite the preparation for a potential influx of migrants due to Title 42's expiration, the seas haven't been any busier than normal.

Since the policy's expiration May 11, WPTV counted at least 10 migrant landings across southeast Florida, including seven in the Florida Keys, two in Pompano Beach and one in Sunny Isles near Miami.

As for Friday's landing in Jupiter, the 13 Haitian migrants taken into custody were taken to the U.S. Border Patrol station in Riviera Beach and given food, water and interviewed. They'll eventually be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Homeland Security Investigations Miami said they are investigating whether Francois will face smuggling charges.