At least 11 people died after a makeshift boat believed to be carrying dozens of migrants capsized near Puerto Rico on Thursday, underscoring the increase in dangerous journeys migrants are making to U.S. shores.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter first spotted the overturned vessel and about 20 people in the water about 10 miles north of the uninhabited Desecheo Island, off Puerto Rico’s west coast, at around noon. According to an initial statement from CBP, 31 survivors, 20 of them male and 11 female, were rescued and taken to Crash Boat Beach in the Puerto Rican town of Aguadilla, where they received emergency medical assistance.
Authorities continued to search for survivors overnight. As of Friday morning, U.S. Coast Guard Southeast, the agency leading the search and rescue operation, said the number of deceased recovered so far remained at 11 and the number of survivors had risen to 38 — 36 Haitian nationals and two Dominican nationals — eight of whom were being treated at a hospital in Aguadilla.
While officials are investigating what happened, a news release from the Coast Guard said the vessel, which authorities described as a “yola” — a small, poorly constructed boat typically used for smuggling — “was suspected of taking part in an illegal voyage.” The agency’s alert noted that those thrown overboard “did not appear to be wearing life jackets.”
Such illegal — and perilous — voyages have risen in recent years, with U.S. authorities intercepting growing numbers of Haitian and Dominican nationals in similar types of boats.
According to U.S. Coast Guard data, during fiscal year 2021, which ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard and its partner agencies intercepted 463 Dominicans and 15 Haitians on “illegal voyages” in Puerto Rican waters and in the Mona Passage, a treacherous strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Since then the numbers have continued to increase. Between Oct. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, authorities apprehended 1,308 migrants on 53 such voyages, including 940 Dominicans and 298 Haitians.
Thursday’s capsizing comes just one week after a woman died and 68 others were rescued from another boat that capsized in the Mona Passage.
The rise in Haitian nationals interdicted at sea is part of a larger trend in overall migration from the island amid worsening violence and economic turmoil following last year’s back-to-back presidential assassination and deadly earthquake.
It also reflects the limited options available for desperate Haitians, who’ve been largely prevented from requesting asylum at U.S. land borders under a pandemic-era border policy known as Title 42, which is set to expire later this month. Advocates tracking expulsion flights estimate that more than 20,000 migrants have been sent back to Haiti since President Biden took office.
In September 2021, after U.S. immigration authorities used Title 42 to quickly expel thousands of Haitian migrants from a makeshift encampment along the Rio Grande in Texas, Yahoo News reported that the CBP’s Office of Intelligence had issued an internal alert warning of a possible influx of Haitian migrants headed to the United States by boat.
At that point, maritime apprehensions of Haitian migrants had already begun to increase over the previous few months. The intelligence alert obtained by Yahoo News noted that many of those detained in Puerto Rico likely did not set sail from Haiti but rather from the Dominican Republic, where Haitians were paying boat captains “between $5,000-$7,000 USD cash up front per person for a seat aboard a Puerto Rican-bound yola.”
Months earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas attempted to prevent a potential migrant crisis in the Caribbean, driven in part by the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
Mayorkas warned that those considering fleeing Haiti by boat would not be allowed to seek asylum in the United States, even if they demonstrated a credible fear of persecution in their home country.
“If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” said Mayorkas, a Cuban refugee who fled Fidel Castro’s regime with his family in 1960. “This risk is not worth taking.”
Though Mayorkas had sought to highlight the very real dangers involved in crossing the Caribbean by boat, immigration advocates predicted that the Biden administration’s effort to discourage migrants from making such journeys would be “ineffective” because it failed “to acknowledge the fear and desperation that drives such migration.”
“No rhetoric from Washington will deter them from seeking safety, because they have no alternative course of action,” said Wendy Young, president of the legal aid nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND. “If they remain at home, they face grave harm and, in some instances, death.”