By Dan Moffett

    Federal officials say that human smugglers are bringing Haitian and Cuban migrants to South Florida in increasing numbers, continuing a five-year trend that shows no sign of slowing.
    The coastal communities have witnessed this up close, watching from their balconies and beachfronts as U.S. Border Patrol and local police have responded to frequent migrant landings from South Palm Beach to Highland Beach during the past year.
    The migrants who make it to shore are a small fraction of those who try to get here, however. The Coast Guard reports a dramatic rise in Cubans and Haitians stopped at sea. As of mid-September, during fiscal year 2014, the Coast Guard had intercepted and detained 2,059 Cuban migrants, 949 Haitians and 293 from the Dominican Republic, an increase of about 60 percent from the three countries over last year.
    “Economics is always a major factor in migration,” said Maria Zequeira, a South Florida immigration attorney who has worked in Haiti with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Also, these smuggling operations are very sophisticated enterprises. They’re always looking for the loophole. If you’re seeing more migrants landing in South Palm Beach County, it’s probably because smugglers are having trouble getting through tightened security somewhere else.”
    A complex set of economic, political and natural factors is driving the increase in illegal migration, according to federal officials and immigrant activists.
    In the United States, the economy is improving, the focus of enforcement has shifted to the Mexican border and the Obama administration is still promising comprehensive immigration reform. In Cuba and Haiti, economic conditions are still bad. In the Bahamas, where most of the illegal traffic to Florida originates, immigration controls are still loose or nonexistent.
    In the Atlantic, the warm seas of summer are calmer than usual, making a perilous journey seem a little less so.
    Government officials believe the upward trend in human smuggling is going to continue.
    “We don’t see any reason why it’s going to stop,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, an enforcement chief with the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami. “So we are preparing to deal with it at these levels.”
    Here are factors contributing to the increase:
    The dismal Haitian economy. Four years after an earthquake killed more than 100,000, life in Haiti remains a day-to-day struggle. A recent United Nations study found that at least 70 percent of Haitians have no access to electricity and at least 600,000 have insufficient food. Close to 200,000 people still live in camps set up to house the 2.3 million people left homeless after the quake. In the spring, an outbreak of cholera and the mosquito-borne virus chikungunya added to the island’s misery.
    The earthquake actually deterred migration for a while as Haitians were consumed with surviving where they were. Now that conditions have at least stabilized, more people are willing to risk leaving.
    The recovering U.S. economy. Meanwhile, in the United States, the recession is over and an improving economy means more job opportunities for immigrants.
    For Haitians, remittances from family members living and working in the U.S. still account for the largest part of Haiti’s economy.

    Bahamas immigration policy. The Bahamas has some of the most lenient immigration laws in the hemisphere and does not require visas for visitors from most countries. Less than 70 miles from the Florida coast, the Bahamas is the launching point of choice for many smugglers who charge anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 to transport a migrant, according to government reports.
    “The Bahamas has been lax about its immigration for a long, long time,” Zequeira said, “and the U.S. government hasn’t been able to get it to make changes and tighten things up.”
    Prospects for U.S. immigration reform. Since the earthquake, the government has granted Haitian immigrants Temporary Protected Status, a designation that allows them to stay and work in the United States without fear of deportation while their homeland recovers from the disaster.
    TPS and the prospect that President Obama might act on comprehensive immigration reform have given some Haitians reason to migrate, believing if they can get here they can stay here.
    Quiet seas. The increasing numbers of Cuban migrants, in particular, could be attributed to the relatively quiet storm seasons in recent years. A provision in federal law known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain here.
    Earlier this year, the Castro government tried to get the United States to end the policy, saying it encourages illegal immigration. But talks about migration policy between the two countries did not produce an agreement.
    Shift in enforcement focus. South Florida may be seeing more illegal migration because other entry points are seeing less. Earlier this year, Border Patrol officials transferred resources to the U.S.-Mexico border to stem the flow of unaccompanied migrant children who were crossing illegally. Tightening security on that border means that smuggling rings will look elsewhere, and Florida is a likely alternative. Federal officials say they’re ready.
    “Make no mistake about it, we will aggressively go after the individuals who knowingly put other people’s lives at risk,” said Cmdr. Timothy Cronin, Seventh Coast Guard District deputy enforcement chief. “Human smugglers are ruthless, profit-seeking criminals who have no regard for human life.”
    Why South Palm Beach County?  Law enforcement officials say that, besides being a straight shot from the Bahamas, the towns of Manalapan, Ocean Ridge and Highland Beach are ideal landing spots for smugglers. Beaches are quiet and within easy access to the mainland.
    “The immigrants have cellphones and they are arranging to be picked up on A1A,” says Manalapan Police Chief Carmen Mattox. “They come right off the beach, they have a cab waiting for them and they’re gone out of the area.”

Notable migrant landings in 2014
Jan. 16: Manalapan police assist Border Patrol in apprehending 17 migrants (16 Haitians and a Jamaican) smuggled from the Bahamas.
April 15: Highland Beach police and Border Patrol agents detain 12 Haitian migrants  — eight men, one juvenile and three women, one of them seven months pregnant.
June 8: Ocean Ridge police, Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies and Border Patrol agents apprehend 17 migrants (15 adults and two infants) from Haiti on Ocean Avenue.
Sept. 1: Manalapan police and border agents apprehend 23 migrants from Haiti and Jamaica at 3:30 a.m. along A1A.
Sept. 15: Highland Beach police and border agents detain 13 migrants from Haiti on South Ocean Boulevard.
Sept. 22: Manalapan police assist Border Patrol in apprehending 10 migrants from Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Sri Lanka.

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