Florida a target for human smugglers

Mention human smuggling and South Florida, and Cuban migrants likely come to mind.

But federal immigration officials say the Sunshine state is a target location for smugglers and their multinational human contraband trying to enter the United States illegally.

"The fact is, people from all over the world are being smuggled into Florida," said Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Frank Miller with the U.S. Border Patrol.

Case in point, federal agents arrested an Irish citizen who arrived by boat in Palm Beach County Wednesday, Miller said. Miller would not go into specific details about what type of vessel transported the Irish migrant to the states, but he said the man came by way of the Bahamas. The islands are a hub for many migrants from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America who are then picked up by smugglers and sailed to Florida.

The unidentified Irishman was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who deported him back to Ireland.

"It's not just a Cuba thing. This is an international issue we're dealing with," Miller said. "They're coming from the Bahamas and other places in the Caribbean."

But the majority of maritime migrations to South Florida still come from Cuba, and they have been steadily increasing ever since the U.S. and Cuban governments strengthened ties in 2014.

Eight Cubans landed on the ocean side of Tavernier Wednesday morning. That was one day after 32 Cubans landed on the Lower Keys island of Lois Key, about 20 miles east of Key West.

The men Wednesday came ashore near mile marker 90 around 8 a.m., Miller said. They arrived offshore in a green, makeshift vessel. It's not clear if they traversed the Florida Straits in the vessel or if they had help from smugglers in a more seaworthy vessel.

They said they left Cuba on Feb. 29, Miller said.

Marlene Hodgdon and her husband Steve were walking their dog on Bee Street off the Old Highway when they saw two Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputies and Border Patrol agents with the men. She said they seemed relieved to have arrived.

"They were all happy and smiling," Hodgdon said. "They were wearing American flag shirts. They looked like they were happy as can be."

In keeping with the United States' so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy regarding Cuban migrants, the men will likely be able to stay in the country since they set foot on dry land. They can apply for permanent residence within the year.

"My husband asked one of the Border Patrol agents if they were free. He said 'Yep, they're free.' "

The thawing of tensions between the U.S. government and Cuba's communist Castro regime has Cuban residents worried their automatic refugee status is at risk. If the two governments are no longer at loggerheads, there's less reason to treat Cuban migrants more favorably than those leaving other nations illegally.

Fear that the policy could change has caused a spike in Cubans trying to enter the U.S. According to the Border Patrol, 43,159 Cubans entered the states by either sea or by land through Mexico in fiscal year 2015. By contrast, in fiscal year 2011, 7,759 Cubans migrated to the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

The trend continues. In February, 269 Cuban migrants attempted to reach U.S. shores, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Since Oct. 1, the Coast Guard 7th District estimates that 2,264 Cubans have attempted to illegally migrate via the sea. These numbers represent the total number of at-sea interdictions, landings and disruptions in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean and Atlantic.

On Tuesday, the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Isaac Mayo repatriated 47 Cuban migrants to Bahia de Cabanas, Cuba. The repatriations are from four separate interdictions at sea in the South Florida Straits.

Miller said the Border Patrol and other federal agencies rely on the public's help to stop the smuggling of humans and contraband into the United States. To report suspicious activity, call (877) 772-8146.

"We want to hear about any cross-border smuggling of drugs, aliens or any other contraband," he said. "We will respond and investigate."