Refugees who landed on Sanibel released, expected to stay in U.S.
Refugees who landed on Sanibel released, expected to stay in U.S.
By Julio Ochoa (Contact), Charlie Whitehead (Contact)
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Seventeen Cubans who landed on Sanibel Island early Sunday were
processed and released by border protection officials on Monday, and the
two men who are believed to have smuggled them out of Cuba remained in
The question of whether Sunday’s Sanibel landing and Monday’s arrival of
28 Cuban refugees on the shore near Gordon Drive in Naples’ Port Royal
community are part of a trend is a matter of opinion.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Tasha Tully said she couldn’t
speculate on whether transport times, weather or other factors brought
two boatloads of Cubans to the Southwest Florida coast this weekend.
Speaking at the Fort Myers Beach Coast Guard station, the public affairs
specialist said it’s just a coincidence that the landings happened a day
“There have been several landings, but it does not constitute a trend,”
But Sanibel police Major Michael Murray sees it differently.
“Obviously, it is becoming a problem,” Murray said. “We’ve had two (on
Sanibel) in the two calendar years, and there was the one in Naples
today. It seems to be a trend.”
On Sanibel, news of Sunday’s landing arrived in the form of a 9-1-1 call
that came in to the city’s police department at 6:57 a.m.
“An individual in the 3900 block of West Gulf Drive said there were 15
or 20 individuals on the beach asking for assistance, obviously not in
good English,” Murray said. “Officers responded and right away we knew
we had more than a call for assistance.”
The Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection were called
immediately, Murray said. Within minutes a 25-foot Coast Guard patrol
boat snuck up on a 33-foot “go-fast” boat near mile marker 101 at the
mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.
“We call them go-fast vessels,” Tully said. “They’re specifically
designed to outmaneuver and outrun law enforcement agencies.”
It didn’t work this time. Doug Molloy, chief federal prosecutor for the
Fort Myers district, said when the Coast Guard snuck up on the
smugglers’ boat they had not yet had a chance to wipe fingerprints off.
“Usually the first thing smugglers do is wipe down the boat for
fingerprints,” Molloy said. “They had distilled vinegar and stuff to
wipe it down with. They caught them before they could.”
Meanwhile, the Sanibel police had called medics to check the refugees’
health. Murray said they were fed and on their way to a Border Patrol
facility in Pembroke Pines by about 11 a.m. According to Border
Protection spokesman Victor Colon they were processed — fingerprints and
backgrounds checked — and released. Under America’s “wet foot, dry foot”
policy they must appear before an immigration judge, but will likely remain.
Reports differ, but Murray said there were 12 adults and five children
ranging age from 8 to 17, including an 8 year-old girl. Murray also said
the adults first claimed they’d been dropped off around 2 a.m. — an
apparent attempt to let the smugglers slip away — but the children told
a different story.
Slightly more than 15 minutes later, the two men were in custody. One
has been arrested previously for human smuggling, the other for
smuggling drugs. The boat, equipped with large twin engines, was being
processed for evidence Monday afternoon.
“We will indict if we’re able to get physical evidence,” Molloy said.
That evidence likely will be fingerprints of the smuggled aliens. Molloy
said witnesses who actually saw the arrival are also being interviewed.
The Coast Guard and Border Patrol had a busy weekend. The agencies
apprehended 102 Cubans who entered the U.S. at six different landings in
This was the second landing on Sanibel in 16 months. In July 2005, 19
Cuban refugees waded ashore on the affluent island after a 14-hour ride.
Smugglers charge as much as $10,000 for a ride from Cuba to Florida.
Tully said smuggling is highly illegal and highly dangerous.
“These smugglers don’t care about the people they have on the boat,” she
said. “In the past they have thrown people overboard to avoid the police.”
Southwest Florida may be seeing an increase in Cuban immigrants on its
shores because it is easier to get out of the communist country than it
was years ago, said Isivro Crespo, a Cuban American who lives in Bonita
Crespo first tried to make it to America in a private boat in 1979.
Cuban authorities caught him about 12 miles off Cuba’s coast and he
spent the next nine years in jail.
When he got out, he tried again and was successful.
“I think now it is easier than it was years ago,” Crespo said.
Cuban authorities may have eased their patrols and those looking to
escape can now hire a smuggler to bring them in a high-powered boat,
“In 1979 nobody came like that,” he said. “You crossed in something that
you made in your home.”
Miguel Fernandez has seen firsthand how conditions have continued to
worsen in Cuba. Fernandez, an attorney in Fort Myers, came to the United
States when he was 5 years old.
He has returned twice in the past three years. He believes more people
will continue to try to get out because conditions continue to get worse
“I don’t think they are leaving because of the decline in Castro’s
health,” Fernandez said. “It’s the continuing deplorable conditions that
exist in Cuba that drive them to leave the country.”
Eduardo Cruz, a teacher in Naples, agrees. Cruz left Cuba in 1998 when
his wife was granted a visa.
“It’s been 47 years under that regime,” Cruz said. “People are looking
for ways to get out.”
The recent influx of Cuban immigrants to Southwest Florida’s shores
underscores the need for tighter borders along the coast, local
activists said Monday.
“We don’t have the proper personnel in place to combat this invasion,”
said Russell Landry, president of Citizens Against Illegal Aliens, a
Fort Myers-based anti-illegal immigration group.
The Coast Guard needs more resources to patrol hundreds of miles of
coastline in Southwest Florida because word is spreading that it is easy
to infiltrate the area’s porous borders, Landry said.
And once construction on a fence at the Mexican/American border is
complete, more illegal immigrants will turn to Florida, he said.
“We’re going to start to see it come here to our coastal waters and on
land where barrier islands are most accessible,” Landry said. “We’re
going to start to see a need for land border patrol agents here.”
The U.S. government should also reconsider its immigration policy for
Cubans, said Tony Maida, co-founder of Americans Standing Tall, a Cape
Coral-based anti-illegal immigration group.
The so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy gives Cuban immigrants amnesty
if they make it to dry land but sends them back to Cuba if they are
caught on the water.
“I think it’s a wrong policy because these people enter our country
illegally,” said Miada said. “If that applies to Cubans then are we
being discriminatory to the rest of the illegal aliens from around the
world? They should have the same policy across the board for everybody