LATEST: Top nation of migrants intercepted at sea off South Florida is ... Ecuador?

Aug 22, 2018
Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post
A suspected smuggling boat sits on the beach in Palm Beach Tuesday morning, January 14, 2014. One suspected Bahamian smuggler and 11 people believed to be illegal immigrants are in custody (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

Stories about the Coast Guard encountering boats jammed with migrants on the high seas usually include two proper nouns: Haiti and Cuba. But that's not always the case.

In fact, authorities have found people from around the world trying to sneak into America in a manner that might be just as dangerous as the Arizona desert — just in a different way. 

So far in the two budget years starting Oct. 1, 2016, in the stretch of the ocean between the Bahamas and the southeast Florida coast, 49 interdictions have netted 423 people from 25 nations, according to Coast Guard statistics.

No. 3: Haiti. No. 2: Cuba. No. 1: Ecuador. 

Ecuador? 

In fact, 83 of those interdicted were from the small country straddling the equator on the Pacific Coast of South America.

And while 13 of the 25 nations listed are in the Caribbean or Central or South America, the rest came from unlikely places: 47 people each from China and Brazil, 32 from India and adjacent Sri Lanka and a total of 19 from Romania, Azerbaijan, Mauritania, Israel and Ireland.

The statistics show only those cases of Coast Guard encounters at sea. Many a boat has been found on a Florida beach, with desperate migrants either aboard, shivering on a nearby street corner, found drowned in the sand or off to parts unknown. How many of those were there? U.S. Customs and Border Protection won’t say.

It rejected inquiries made by The Palm Beach Post, both informally and through the federal Freedom of Information Act, for the number and locations of landings as well as information about the people encountered.

A staff attorney wrote The Post on Aug. 3 that "potential law violators could use this information to determine which stations and/or ports of entry are most vulnerable to attack."

The Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection’s parent agency, did say in a December news release that nine migrants, plus an American citizen, were detained early on Dec. 20 when a boat came ashore near the Jupiter Inlet. The eight included two each from China, Turkey and Haiti, along with a Bahamian and a Jamaican.

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Federal agents reportedly arrested six people in a human-trafficking investigation after a boat crammed with 24 people was intercepted off Palm Beach in November.

And in March, about 15 miles east of the Jupiter Inlet, the Coast Guard reported taking into custody five migrants and one American citizen.

Aileen Josephs Photo: HANDOUT/The Palm Beach Post

The Coast Guard’s numbers might not be a legitimate sampling, since they count only those who were caught, and because of the Homeland Security's refusal to provide figures. But there were more than 400.

Aileen Josephs, a West Palm Beach immigration attorney, isn't surprised at the breadth of nationalities. She said the traditional option of sneaking into Mexico and entering America through the desert has gotten just too dangerous. And not because it's the desert.

"The narcos are working with human smugglers," Josephs said Tuesday. She said she's heard horror stories of people having to pay thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars to human smugglers — "coyotes" — and of people being abandoned, held for ransom or killed.

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Compare that to flying to the Bahamas, boarding a boat and taking what could be a journey at sea of just a few hours. 

"I would say this probably is the safest crossing if you're trying to enter the country illegally," Josephs said. 

Safer, but not completely safe. People still could drown. And, of course, while there's no way to know how many got in successfully, more than 400 got caught.

Then why Ecuador? And why China?

Embassies for the two nations did not respond to inquiries. Homeland Security and the U.S. State Department would not comment.

A boat sits ashore on the beach north of Marcinski Road Tuesday morning, August 18, 2015, after reportedly dropping off undocumented migrants. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post

David Abraham, an immigration-law professor at the University of Miami, said either most or all migrants entering by boat likely were refused visas and almost assuredly are sneaking in from the Bahamas. 

In the case of Ecuador and China, he said, part of it might be that Ecuador has friendly treaties with the Bahamas that make it easier to enter. And Hong Kong, technically part of China now, still has partial United Kingdom Commonwealth status, with the Bahamas having full status, which makes it easy to travel between the two. And then get to Florida.

But he also noted the Coast Guard numbers are a snapshot. And, he said, “I assume many of these people are without documents and are self reporting” and so might be lying about their nationalities.

But why are people sneaking in from countries so far away? 

"People always search for the American dream," Josephs said. "This country always will attract people."