Since the 1990s, more Cubans have come to the United States by sea than ever before


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An alarming trend is emerging in South Florida, where officials are seeing a rising number of migrants, mostly Haitians and Cubans, traveling to the US shore on makeshift boats.

According to the agency, US Coast Guard crews have intercepted more than 6,000 Cubans since last October, the most in a fiscal year since the 1990s.

“We’ve seen this before. It’s a natural phenomenon. However, what is of real concern to us is the increase and the fact that we are seeing more people on not-so-seaworthy vessels, putting a significant number of those people at very dangerous risk to their lives,” said Miami Sector Chief Patrol Agent Walter Slosar.

Cubans have been fleeing the island for years, but recent unrest, persecution and lack of basic necessities have pushed even more to leave the island.

“Individuals have come to us with stories of local government persecution because they were unable to attend certain events because they disagreed with the island’s local and communist politics. It’s not just them, but many stories of family members, friends who have been arrested and imprisoned for minor, non-criminal offenses,” said David Claros, director of Immigration Legal Services Southeast Region at Church World Service, adding that he hires additional staff to meet demand.

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Patrols here are made difficult by the varied terrain and require coordination between authorities on land, air and sea. CNN has recently been embedded in the air and naval operations of US Customs and Border Protection, US Border Patrol and the Coast Guard.

Authorities will work together to identify and ban migrants so they can be returned. However, when they land, they are taken into the custody of border police.

As the Coast Guard tries to intercept migrants before they reach US shores, thousands have made it ashore. So far this fiscal year, border officials have detained nearly 3,600 in the Miami sector, which stretches more than 1,200 miles of Florida’s coast, up from just over 1,000 last year.

Authorities encounter a variety of vessels at sea and ashore, from surfboards tied together to boats with limited supplies and no navigation system for the journey that often takes days. Just an hour after a Coast Guard patrol, crew members spotted a makeshift vessel carrying approximately eight people at sea.

And it’s not just Cubans. Officials are also grappling with increasing numbers of Haitian migrants traveling by sea. The Coast Guard has responded to incidents involving large sailing vessels carrying dozens if not hundreds of Haitian migrants, putting those on board at great risk.

“Conditions on board were terrible,” said Mark Lamphere, a Coast Guard naval interdiction agent, recalling a ship that arrived off the Florida coast this year.

“There were reports of people injured in the fuselage so I had to jump in and it was obviously standing room only,” he said. Two hundred of them were crammed in there, and they would defecate and urinate right where they stand.”

Slosar recognized the need for resources to address the new trends.

“We all work with finite resources and when we meet these people you don’t know who is on this boat. It is our mission to understand who is coming to the country. Our agents need time to get them into our care, make sure they’re healthy and clean and that they’re fed and safe, and then identify exactly who they are,” he said.