Florida activates national guard as Cuban arrivals seek refuge

Governor Ron DeSantis criticised US President Joe Biden’s immigration stance as rising numbers of Cuban asylum seekers arrive.

A Cuban man calls his grandmother from a US border facility. He is standing behind bars and holding mobile phone to his ear while clutching a bar. A man stands behind him, looking down with his hand to his mouth.
People in Cuba have sought to escape poverty and environmental disasters, risking their lives to cross to the US by sea [Marta Lavandier/AP Photo]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Friday mobilised the state national guard to help local officials respond to a large influx of Cuban asylum seekers landing at the southernmost tip of the contiguous United States.

DeSantis, a Republican, used an executive order on Friday to activate the Florida National Guard and direct state law agencies to assist in the Florida Keys, a chain of tropical islands that extend into the Gulf of Mexico.

The move came in response to the arrival of more than 700 mostly Cuban refugees and migrants over the New Year’s weekend alone.

In a statement on Friday, the governor criticised Democratic President Joe Biden and the federal government’s immigration policies.

“The burden of the Biden administration’s failure falls on local law enforcement who lack the resources to deal with the crisis,” DeSantis said.

The governor’s statement made no mention of the Biden administration’s announcement of a new policy on Thursday to start turning back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who arrive illegally at the Texas border.

The administration also said it would offer humanitarian parole for up to 30,000 people a month from those four countries if they apply online, pay their airfare and find a financial sponsor.

Some refugee and migrant advocates said the new policy could worsen the situation in Florida. Ramon Raul Sanchez with the Cuban American group Movimiento Democracia said even more Cubans may risk their lives by taking to the sea to reach the US instead of flying to Central America and coming to the Texas border by land.

But Blas Nunez-Neto, acting assistant secretary for Border and Immigration Policy at the US Department for Homeland Security, argues the new program could incentivise Cubans not to come illegally by sea.

He said Cubans would be better off applying under the new parole program announced on Thursday because that would give them a potential path to residency they might not otherwise have.

“Do not risk your life at sea” because there are “much better options” under the new program, he said.

DeSantis said Florida will deploy aeroplanes, helicopters and marine patrols to the area “to support water interdictions and ensure the safety of migrants attempting to reach Florida through the Florida Straits”.

More than 4,400 asylum seekers and migrants, mostly Cubans with some Haitians, have arrived by boat in Florida since August as the two countries face deepening and compounding political and economic crises.

Because Washington and Havana do not have diplomatic relations, it is problematic for the US government to send Cubans back once they arrive in Florida.

Those stopped at sea are already taken back, since Cuba will accept those people. Almost 8,000 Cubans and Haitians have been intercepted since August – about 50 per day compared with 17 per day in the 2021-22 fiscal year and just two per day during the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Officials said at least 65 migrants have died at sea since August.

Source: The Associated Press