Migration to Florida puts strain on U.S. Coast Guard resources

MIAMI, Fla. — The number of migrants coming to the U.S. through Florida continues to grow, which is pushing the Coast Guard to its limits.

The Coast Guard intercepted more than 6,300 Cubans in the last six months.


The economic, political and social turmoil in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti and Cuba, are causing maritime migration.

Channel 9 wanted to see for ourselves, so we flew from the Miami Coast Guard Station to just off the coast of Cuba with the Coast Guard this week.

The only mission on these flights is to rescue migrants out in the ocean. We left from the base just after 9 a.m. and it wasn’t long before we found their target.

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Lt. Commander Joshua Mitcheltree has flown hundreds of rescue missions, but for the last three years, his missions have been to find and help migrants coming from places like Cuba.

“It seems like it’s a big wide world out here. Is it like a needle in a haystack trying to find what you are looking for?” we asked him.

“100%,” he said. The ocean is big every direction you look, all you see is blue water.”

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But on this day, the crew had intel, coordinates and radar to help.

A call had come in that someone saw a vessel leave the coast Cuba a few hours before the flight took off.

Mitcheltree said the job that day was to locate them to make sure they were OK.

“Our role is just to identify them, find them,” Mitcheltree. “It’s really sad to hear of a vessel that sinks because they are not very seaworthy and we are scrambling to locate all of the people in the water, which can be very difficult. It happens. The journey to Florida is about 100 miles. The migrants have to deal with currents, large swells and sweltering heat.”

Read: US Coast Guard in Florida stops hundreds fleeing Cuba, Haiti by sea, returns most

On this day, the drop-master aboard the plane was Joe Jagodzinski.

“It’s such a long treacherous voyage. The weather changes constantly, and they just can’t really perceive just how dangerous this voyage is,” he said. “We only find so many. The people we find we believe are lucky because we find them and they are alive. But we don’t know how many we lose because we don’t find everybody.”

They also deal with dehydration and hunger. The plane carries pumps, food, water and communication equipment on board in case they find migrants in distress.

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In this case, their situation was not yet dire and they seemed not to need or want help from the Coast Guard yet, but they get it anyway.

We hovered above the boat briefly while a Coast Guard ship was called and headed to pick them up.

“Do you think the people understand what you are here for or no?” we asked.

“Yeah, absolutely. Especially when they get aboard the cutter, they know,”  Petty Officer Ryan Estrada said. “Once they are on the cutters we will brief them and make sure they have food and that they are medically taken care of. They are able to have a change of clothes they can change into. They understand that they are likely going back to their country of origin and that we are here, in essence, policing. Our priority is the safety of life at sea. They understand that.”

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Shannon Butler

Shannon Butler, WFTV.com

Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.

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