House panel to focus not on Mexico border -- but rising immigration at sea

A record level of crossings to Florida fuels safety and security concerns.

March 23, 2023, 12:38 PM

The fraught politics of immigration have largely focused on the land border between the U.S. and Mexico, but on Thursday afternoon a panel of lawmakers will turn to Florida's maritime border and what government data shows is a sharply rising wave of migration from the Caribbean.

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security is hearing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as U.S. Coast Guard officials to learn about resource and policy needs to better secure the Florida coast.

Republican lawmakers are expected to press the officials on ways the Biden administration could strengthen policy and deter migrants. Democrats are likely to point to recent declines in migrants from certain countries recently included in the dual-track strategy of the administration cracking down on unlawful claims while opening narrow avenues for relief.

But conservatives aren't swayed.

"I think they're both out of control," Subcommittee Chairman Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., told ABC News. "I wouldn't say that the southern border is more in control."

Gimenez cited the recent acknowledgement from Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz that the U.S. was not currently maintaining "operational control" of the border -- defined under federal law as the complete prevention of unlawful entries, a feat no administration has ever achieved.

"Regardless of the technical terms, and whether you think that any president can actually meet that or not, this president has failed miserably," Gimenez said, echoing broad Republican criticism of the Biden administration. "A greater failure than any other president in history."

A steel-hulled, makeshift migrant sailboat is grounded near the mangroves of Harry Harris Park, Jan. 10, 2023, in the Upper Keys area of Tavernier, Fla.
David Goodhue/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Experts say a number of factors have contributed to the protracted diaspora of populations across the Western Hemisphere, including the build-up of migration demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread instability in Haiti and deteriorating authoritarian regimes in South America.

In response to concerns about the border, President Joe Biden last year requested the largest-ever increase in Border Patrol personnel, with lawmakers ultimately approving funding for 300 additional agents.

Another 350 would be added under the president's latest budget proposal, which is likely to be ignored by the divided Congress.

Most Republicans have opposed Biden's funding proposals, saying solutions should start with apprehension and removal policies. While the White House has maintained some strict Trump-era measures, drawing the ire of immigration advocates, they have rolled others back and argued they want to be more humane.

Republicans have pointed to the reversal of restrictions including international agreements that facilitated the return of some asylum-seekers as well as the "Remain in Mexico" policy, which made asylum-seekers wait outside the U.S. between immigration appointments. Mexico has since opposed such policies after the Biden administration showed a willingness to pull them back.

Gimenez, who said Biden is not being tough enough on Mexico, represents southern Florida and the Keys, a region that has seen an overall spike this year in unauthorized migrant dockings and other migrant apprehensions despite recent declines.

A wooden Cuban migrant boat is tied to a sea wall in the Fills area of Indian Key, Oct. 12, 2022, in the Florida Keys.
David Goodhue/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Border Patrol agents in the Miami region apprehended migrants 328 times last month, down from 1,357 apprehensions in January, according to CBP data.

So far this fiscal year, total Miami-area apprehensions have topped 5,000 for the first time since the Bush administration, with more than half the fiscal year to go.

Meanwhile, people without official travel documents have attempted to make legal entry more than 43,000 times this fiscal year at Miami ports, according to CBP data which includes Miami International Airport.

The U.S. Coast Guard has also found elevated numbers of migrants -- mainly Cubans and Haitians -- often on rafts and small boats not outfitted to handle the Atlantic Ocean. Such crossings can be deadly.

Coast Guard teams off the Florida coast have disrupted unauthorized Haitian maritime travel 3,567 times so far this budget year, far beyond the 419 encounters recorded in all of budget year 2017, the oldest year immediately available, or any year since except 2022.

Unauthorized migration from Cuba has also hit the highest levels seen in recent years. The vast majority of migrants found at sea are swiftly returned to their home countries by the Coast Guard.

A couple looking at a collection of Cuban refugee boats at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.
Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

"They come across on very flimsy boats and rafts and inner tubes -- any way they can to seek freedom and seek a better opportunity here in the United States," Gimenez said. "I don't blame the folks trying to reach the United States. I'm a migrant myself. What I do blame -- it needs to be done in a legal manner and it needs to be done in a safe manner."

Outside experts have said broader forces are pushing people toward these journeys, regardless of the risk.

"Cuba is not far from the United States. The inability to migrate by land, the difficulty of accessing humanitarian parole for those lacking passports or sponsors, and historic levels of economic misery in Cuba have combined to cause an immediate spike in maritime migration across the Florida Straits," analyst Adam Isaacson wrote last month.

South Florida has also long been a hub for international drug trafficking, and while the steady pace of CBP seizures continues, it appears uncorrelated to recent spikes in migration, based on a review of publicly accessible data.

Additionally, the vast majority of drugs seized by CBP are found at federal ports of entry.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

Related Topics