A migrant interdiction at sea off the Keys Wednesday turned tense after federal agents boarded an overloaded makeshift vessel to save two toddlers.
The Key Largo Marine Unit of U.S. Customs Air and Marine Operations responded to a call from U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West, which had been monitoring the Cuban migrant vessel for more than 12 hours.
It was not clear at press time where off the Keys the interdiction happened.
When the agents arrived in their 39-foot Midnight Express boat, the operator of the migrant vessel would not stop. The agents then picked up a Coast Guard rescue swimmer from a cutter that was already on the scene, said U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection spokesman Keith Smith.
The swimmer was on hand in case any migrants went into the water, Smith said.
Once the swimmer was aboard the Customs boat, the agents drove up beside the migrants' vessel and shot pepper spray balls at the captain, forcing him to shut his craft down.
The migrants, 12 in all, were safely transferred to the cutter. The agents sank the migrant vessel because it was a navigational hazard, Keith said.
"A well-coordinated effort between the U.S. Coast Guard and our highly trained agents led us to safely interdict these migrants," Tony Arevalo, director of marine operations for CBP’s Miami Air and Marine Branch, said in a statement.
Since the migrants were stopped at sea, they were likely returned to Cuba. U.S. policy states migrants who make it to U.S. shores can stay in the country and apply for permanent residency within a year. Those caught at sea are returned to Cuba. The policy is known as wet foot, dry foot.
Migrations from Cuba have spiked over the past 12 months after the Obama administration announced it was renewing diplomatic ties with the communist Castro regime.
With the tensions between the two governments thawing, the need to treat every fleeing Cuban as a refugee may become anachronistic. Many Cubans fear wet-foot, dry-foot may end soon, and they want to come here before the U.S. government changes the policy.
According to the Pew Research Center, 43,154 Cubans entered the United States through all points of entry in fiscal year 2015. That number represents a 78 percent jump from fiscal year 2014.
Many Cubans are entering the states by land by flying to Ecuador and traveling to the U.S./Mexican border. But the percentage entering by sea through South Florida more than doubled from fiscal year 2014 to 2014, from 4,709 people to 9,999, according to Pew.
Smith said Customs and Border Protection's mission is dependent on community involvement. The agency asks you to report maritime smuggling and other suspicious activities through (800) BE-ALERT (232-5378) or the after-hours toll-free number, (800) 562-5943.