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An influx of 300 migrants forces closure of a national park in the Florida Keys

Karen Bleier
AFP via Getty Images
Over the holiday weekend, hundreds of migrants landed in Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico. Tourists walk along the sea wall surrounding Fort Jefferson in the park in February 2016.

The U.S. National Park Service has closed Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys after hundreds of migrants arrived on the islands over the New Year's weekend.

The NPS temporarily closed the park to public access on Monday morning after an estimated 300 migrants landed in the park, according to a news release. It said the park has seen an increase in people arriving by boat from Cuba.

"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 migrants," the NPS said.

First responders at the park are providing food, water and basic medical needs until the Department of Homeland Security arrives, the statement noted. Concession-operated ferry and sea plane services are temporarily suspended.

Rear Adm. Brendan C. McPherson, director of Homeland Security Task Force - Southeast, said in a statement Sunday that the task force is aware of "multiple migrant landings this weekend" on the park.

"They will be removed, provided food, water & basic first aid before transfer to federal [law enforcement] agents in the Keys for processing by [Miami Sector U.S. Border Patrol] to determine their legal status to remain in the United States or be processed for removal and repatriation to their country of origin," McPherson said.

A former Florida resident camping on the park over the weekend captured footage of some of the migrant landings. Migrants can be seen leaping off their makeshift chug boats, hugging each other, and cheering with joy after making it to land. He told NPR member station WGCU that the migrants' supplies included life vests and bags of crackers.

About 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., the 100-square mile park consists of seven small islands accessible only by boat or seaplane. It is about 100 miles north of Havana, Cuba's capital.

As Cuba experiences its worst economic downturn in decades, 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.

More than 160 refugees had landed mostly in the Middle and Upper Keys in addition to the 300 people in the Dry Tortugas, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said in a statement on Monday. Sheriff Rick Ramsay called it a "humanitarian crisis" created by "federal failure."

"This shows a lack of a working plan by the federal government to deal with a mass migration issue that was foreseeable," Ramsay said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Ahn
Ashley Ahn is an intern for the Digital News and Graphics desks. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN's health and medical unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers for CNN's Atlanta News Bureau. She also wrote pieces for USA TODAY and served as the Executive Editor of her college's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Ahn is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at Columbia University.