Dry Tortugas National Park closed after 300 refugees arrive; officials warn of 'humanitarian crisis'
KEY WEST — A former Florida resident camping on the Dry Tortugas Saturday and Sunday managed to capture footage of groups of Cuban refugees landing there, some of more than 300 refugees who have come there recently creating what one local official said is a "humanitarian crisis."
The landings also prompted the temporary closing of Dry Tortugas National Park to public access Monday to allow law enforcement and medical personnel time to evaluate, provide care for and coordinate transport to Key West for the refugees who arrived in the park over the past couple of days.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said it has been told by the U.S. Border Patrol that some refugee landings may have to wait for federal resources to arrive until Tuesday.
"This federal failure is creating a humanitarian crisis," Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay posted on the Sheriff's Office Facebook page.
“This shows a lack of a working plan by the federal government to deal with a mass migration issue that was foreseeable,” he said.
Enid Magari was camping in the area for the holidays when he said he witnessed some of the landings.
"I was camping at Dry Tortugas for New Years," Magari said on his Twitter feed. "When we arrived on Dec 31st there were 80 migrants, by mid day Jan 1 there were close to 300 and we were informed we needed to leave the island. I witnessed 4 such landings myself."
Magari, formerly of Cooper City, Florida, told WGCU that the refugees he saw were thrilled to make it to the Dry Tortugas. He said among their provisions were life vests and bags of crackers.
Shoutout to all the rangers at @DryTortugasNPS. The level of humanity and grace displayed to these migrants made me proud to be American. They stayed up all night providing food and care for these people and went the extra mile. Where is the @HSTF_Southeast to help them?!? pic.twitter.com/Reeq2jQXpK— Enid Magari (@enidmagari) January 2, 2023
"The faster they can be processed by homeland security the faster they can reunite with their families," he said via Twitter. "Shoutout to all the rangers at @DryTortugasNPS. The level of humanity and grace displayed to these migrants made me proud to be American. They stayed up all night providing food and care for these people and went the extra mile. Where is the @HSTF_Southeast to help them?!?"
The National Park Service said the closure, which is expected to last several days, is necessary for the safety of visitors and staff because of the resources and space needed to attend to the refugees. Concession-operated ferry and sea plane services are temporarily suspended.
A release from the National Park Service said there has been a recent increase in people arriving by boat from Cuba and landing on the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park along with other sites in the Florida Keys.
Park first responders provide food, water and basic medical attention until the Department of Homeland Security arrives and takes the lead.
A report from NPR said Cuba was experiencing its worst economic downturn in decades, and Cubans are coming to the U.S. in record numbers. U.S. authorities recorded more than 220,000 Cubans at the U.S. southwest border in fiscal year 2022, a nearly 500% increase from the same period in 2021. Experts call it the largest exodus from Cuba in history.
A statement released from Rear Adm. Brendan C. McPherson, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District and director of Homeland Security Task Force - Southeast, said the task force is aware of multiple refugees vessel landings on Dry Tortugas National Park and the Marquesas.
"The U.S. Coast Guard and partner federal, state and local components in HSTF-SE are coordinating efforts to recover the individuals currently stranded on the remote, uninhabited islands," McPherson's statement said. "They will be removed, provided food, water and any basic first aid they may need before being transferred to federal law enforcement agents in the Keys. From there, they will be transported for processing by regional U.S. Border Patrol stations to determine their legal status to remain in the United States or be processed for removal and repatriation to their country of origin. Irregular, illegal maritime migration is always dangerous and very often deadly. Do not take to the seas.”
While the park is closed, vessels may seek safe harbor in the designated areas within the one nautical mile anchoring zone around Garden Key, including Bird Key Harbor.
There will be no visitor services available while the closure is in effect and emergency services will be extremely limited. The National Parks Service said closures will remain in place until further notice.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office, which covers the area, also issued information about the landings.
"The Sheriff’s Office has been assisting federal law enforcement agents with a spike in Cuban refugee arrivals since Saturday and continuing into Monday morning," a statement by the Sheriff's Office said.
“Refugee arrivals require a lot of resources from the Sheriff’s Office as we help our federal law enforcement partners ensure the migrants are in good health and safe,” said Ramsay. “Residents may see an increased amount of law enforcement and emergency responders throughout the county as we continue to respond to these landings.”
Here you can see the sheer volume of chugs. The @DryTortugasNPS staff informed us this was the accumulation of just a few weeks of migration. Notice the naming of the vessels, they reflect the hope and yearning for freedom these folks have. pic.twitter.com/pLHafMNZxo— Enid Magari (@enidmagari) January 2, 2023
The Sheriff's Office said that more than 160 refugees have landed mostly in the Middle and Upper Keys, as well as many as 300 on the Marquesas Keys and at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
The Sheriff's Office also requested that if Monroe County residents see an arrival occurring, they should notify the Sheriff’s Office and provide a location.
The Dry Tortugas lie almost 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, composed of a cluster of seven islands, made up of coral reefs and sand, and a direct route from the Cuban mainland to Florida.
With the surrounding shoals and water, they make up the Dry Tortugas National Park, an area noted for bird and marine life and shipwrecks. Fort Jefferson, its central feature, is one of the nation's largest 1800s masonry forts.
WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you. Ashley Ahn, an intern for the Digital News and Graphics desks for NPR, contributed to this report.