KEY WEST, Fla. — Take a ride along the Florida Keys, and it’s clear why this 180-mile stretch of blue water Atlantic coastline is a destination for tourists.
But a look a little deeper, and this unique arch of islands along the Florida Straits, the Southernmost point just 90 miles from Cuba, is also the X that marks the spot for people from other countries willing to make a dangerous voyage on the water at the chance for freedom on land.
“They could spend weeks at sea here. The dangers are the first thing that stands out to me,” explained Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner of U.S. Border Patrol’s Florida sector.
He said the Florida Keys has been dealing with an unusual surge in migrant landings. In October, the number of landings across the Keys increased more than 450% from October 2021.
“This is the most landings that I’ve seen. It’s predominately Cuban and Haitian migration,” he said.
In the four days prior to our arrival, Hoffner said Border Patrol agents in the Keys had reported 15 separate landings, leaving hundreds of men and women entering the state by sea illegally. They often arrive in dangerous, homemade boats that aren’t safe for water, let alone carrying people.
While migrants can arrive on land at all hours, they frequently occur at night amid cooler temperatures and darker skies.
During our visit, Hoffner’s team got a call around 1:30 am Tuesday. Between 25-30 migrants had come ashore at the Navy Base in Key West. We joined Hoffner and his crew and made the 50-minute drive with them as they responded to the scene.
On our way, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone asked Agent Hoffner how long his team could sustain the level of activity they had been witnessing in the area for months.
“We have to tighten things up, and we work with all our partners providing extra support,” he said.
When we arrived, some of the partners were already on the scene, including Key West police.
Standing on the base were 25 Cuban men and women who all appeared visibly exhausted; some were shoeless, but all of them appeared relieved to be on dry ground after they described a scary three days at sea.
One 22- year-old woman agreed to speak with us on camera and said their homemade boat had mechanical problems and wouldn’t stop if they let go of it. At one point, she said, they were also encircled by sharks.
When asked if she was happy to be in Florida, she sighed and laughed, nodding her head yes, adding, “Bueno, Bueno.”
She said she came with her boyfriend and aunt and wants to find work here so she can help her family back home.
Another man, dressed in a USA stars and stripes outfit, also said he made the dangerous journey in hopes of being able to help his family and have “a better life.” The man needed medical attention immediately after arriving because he cut his hand by trying to hold on to a boat no one could fully control.
The boat, rustic and shoddy, eventually crashed on the Navy base where they all landed.
The group said they each paid the equivalent to $2,000 to $3,000 U.S. dollars to get here. They’ll spend the next 12-72 hours getting processing before they’re released but kept under federal monitoring as their immigration proceedings begin.
They join more than 100 additional Cubans who, within the same 24 hours, also made it to shore in the Keys.
By Tuesday afternoon, Agent Hoffner had reported the number of migrant landings in the area increased to 11 in just a 24-hour period.
During the 2022 fiscal year, U.S. Border Patrol in Florida reported more than 35,000 encounters with migrants, nearly double from one year ago when there were just over 19,000 migrant encounters reported, according to a federal database from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Agent Hoffner would not talk about the politics of the immigration debate, keeping that part of the conversation to politicians.
“We understand the political climate could change, but here at U.S. Border Patrol, we focus on our mission for border security and what we can do here,” he said.