OPA-LOCKA, FLA. (WSVN) – 7News got a ride-along with a U.S. Coast Guard crew acting as an “eye in the sky” looking for migrants trying to make their way to South Florida.
A surge of those hoping for a better life from across the Caribbean have been making the dangerous journey for several months.
And one group of officers are trying to spot them before they reach shore.
A 7News crew on Friday joined an air crew as they took off from the Coast Guard Air Station, unsure of what the day would hold.
With the influx of migrants over the past few months, the odds were high that the crew would see activity.
It used to be that the Coast Guard would intercept migrants maybe weekly, but now it happens daily.
About an hour into the flight, air crew members spotted an abandoned migrant boat that had already been checked out by a crew at sea.
“It’s actually been pretty consistently busy,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. EJ Cunningham. “I mean, every time we’re on duty, every time I’m flying, there’s definitely something going on.”
Cunningham is the co-pilot on Friday’s flight down the Florida coast, along the Keys and to the Bahamas, as close as they can get to Cuba in U.S. airspace.
Last week, the Biden administration started a program that allowed people from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and Nicaragua to apply for temporary parole here in the U.S. as long as they have a financial sponsor.
The goal is to deter these dangerous journeys at sea.
“It has diminished a little, and I hope it continues to be that way,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Abimael Rodriguez.
But, regardless, these officers don’t make the politics. They just make sure families won’t mourn these people at the end of the day.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking, you know,” said Cunningham. “They’re in a situation where they’d rather be there than where they just came from.”
“And the reason why I joined this service is to save lives,” said Rodriguez. “That’s bottom line, and that’s how I see it, so every time I save one person or however many, I feel the satisfaction that I helped someone.”
Rodriguez has helped lots of people over his 18-year career. Friday was no different.
Two hours into the flight, he spotted another boat about 50 miles off the coast of the Bahamas, this time with several migrants on board.
The 7News crew saw firsthand how the overwhelming number of migrants is straining assets.
“Basically, with the overload of vessels we have encountered in the past months, we have been working around the clock,” said Rodriguez, “and we are prioritizing the vessels we need to help.”
The crew said they originally spotted them the day before, but because it wasn’t a medical emergency, they just dropped them supplies. However, now it’s becoming more urgent.
“They said they had two people that were weak,” said Rodriguez, “and that’s very understandable in the conditions, and they’ve been on the water for approximately over a week.”
So two officers geared up and opened the back hatch to drop more supplies like a radio, food and water.
Once the pilots fly over, they let go of the supplies, and it floats down to the migrants.
Now, they’ve done all they can from the sky, and their partners at sea will come on a cutter to interdict them.
One of the most popular spots for migrants to be found is off the coast of Cay Sal, on some of the most beautiful water in the Florida Straits, so they’ll stay here and wait for the Coast Guard to save them.
Minutes later, at a nearby island, the air crew stumbled upon what the Coast Guard calls a cold hit.
A group of several more migrants on land cheered when they saw the Coast Guard plane, because their boat couldn’t go any further.
But this time around, the crew did not have enough supplies on board.
They only brought enough for one drop, so the crew took down the coordinates and called a cutter to bring supplies as soon as possible.
Asked how these past few months compare with what he has experienced over the last 18 years, Rodriguez said, “This is something basically we never seen before. The influx of vessels is unbelievable.”
After the six-hour flight, Rodriguez offered these parting words: “I would like to encourage the families here in the states to not encourage your families back home to take this extremely dangerous trip. Anything can happen, and their lives are more important than anything.”
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