Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday warned citizens of Cuba and Haiti against trying to flee to the United States amid unrest in those nations, saying they would be repatriated or referred to other countries for resettlement.
But Mayorkas said migrants should not make the dangerous journey by sea, warning, “People will die.”
“The time is never right to attempt migration by sea,” Mayorkas said at the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, standing beside Adm. Linda Fagan, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard.
“Allow me to be clear, if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” Mayorkas said.
He spoke days after the Coast Guard suspended the search for nine Cubans missing at sea after their boat capsized approximately 26 miles southeast of Key West.
Mayorkas said the Department of Homeland Security has seen a slight increase in maritime migration and intends to stop it before it becomes a surge, especially during hurricane season and as the coronavirus pandemic remains a public health threat.
Officials have apprehended 313 Haitian migrants so far this fiscal year, which began in October. The number was 430 for all of last year.
Coast Guard crews have intercepted more than 550 Cubans to date, compared with 49 for all of fiscal 2020.
Migrants intercepted at sea will be returned on government ships to their homelands unless they establish a “well-founded fear of persecution or torture,” Mayorkas said. In those cases, he said, the migrants will be referred to third countries for resettlement.
“They will not enter the United States,” he said.
The Coast Guard is patrolling the Florida Straits and the waters off Puerto Rico, and recently sent a pair of cutters to the coast of Haiti to join other vessels already in the area, Mayorkas said.
Cuba and Haiti, each home to 11 million people, have been engulfed in turmoil in recent days.
In Cuba, which is less than 100 miles away from Florida’s Key West, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets Sunday amid electrical blackouts, food shortages and spreading coronavirus.
Haiti, which shares an island with the Dominican Republic, has plunged into uncertainty since Moïse’s assassination July 7. At Haiti’s request, DHS and the FBI sent officials to assess the country’s security. Mayorkas said three DHS officials examined cybersecurity, port security and airport security, but he did not provide details of their assessments.
A group that advocates for immigrants criticized Mayorkas’s remarks, saying migrants have the legal right to seek asylum. Katharina Obser, the acting director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the organization was “gravely disappointed” by the secretary’s “repeated insistence on rejecting desperate families, children, and single adults from our borders, whether by foot or by sea.”