The Florida Keys, a chain of tropical islands that form the southernmost point of the contiguous United States, experienced an influx of migrants and refugees this weekend as an estimated 500 asylum seekers arrived by boat to the archipelago’s shores.

The situation amounts to a “humanitarian crisis,” the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Monday, adding that US Border Patrol had issued instructions to delay some landings until federal resources arrive.

The wave of arrivals began peaking on Saturday and was expected to continue Monday morning, the statement said.

It comes as the US debates the future of its asylum policy, with the Supreme Court set to rule Title 42, an immigration order that has been used about 2.5 million times to expel migrants and refugees arriving at the country’s borders.

Republican officials have warned that repealing Title 42 could lead to an increase in asylum seekers for which the US is ill-prepared. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s administration signaled support for lifting the policy, which critics say violates asylum seekers’ right to a fair trial.

Citing the resources required to care for the incoming migrants and refugees, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office blamed the situation in the Florida Keys on “federal failure.”

“This shows that the federal government has no work plan to address a foreseeable mass migration problem,” said local sheriff Rick Ramsay.

The island city of Key West is located about 150 km north of Cuba, making it a popular destination for asylum seekers fleeing the Caribbean country and other countries in the region.

Cuba in particular is currently in the grip of one severe economic downturn. The coronavirus pandemic has toppled the island’s tourism industry and the Cuban economy continues to struggle under a US embargo dating back nearly 60 years to the Cold War.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, a US-based anti-embargo nonprofit, has reported that the economic crisis has led to the largest wave of Cuban migration in US history.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 224,607 “encounters” with Cuban migrants and refugees from October 2021 to September 2022 — a 471 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

And rates remain high: In October and November alone, the agency reported 65,731 encounters, while the U.S. Coast Guard reported 6,182 Cubans intercepted at sea for fiscal year 2022.

That, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, makes the current exodus bigger than the two biggest Cuban migration crises combined: the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the Cuban raft exodus in 1994.

The asylum seekers arrive in the Florida Keys over the weekend mainly from Cubaalso, said the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, with about 300 landings on the outlying islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park, accessible only by boat or seaplane.

A popular tourist destination for its coral reefs and 19th-century fort, the park announced it would close for several days while “law enforcement and medical personnel evaluate, care for, and coordinate the migrants and refugees entering Key West.”

Afterward, park officials said they expect the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to arrive and “take charge.”

Another 160 asylum seekers landed in the middle or upper Keys archipelago, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office also said.

Many of the asylum seekers left improvised or wooden boats that can be precarious at sea.

On Dec. 12, the Cuban Coast Guard had to rescue a boat with an engine failure just off the coast of the country’s capital, Havana. An American flag was painted on the side of the boat.

Florida is one of several US states in the center of the country immigration debatewith Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising star in the Republican Party, denouncing the “dangerous” effect of President Biden’s “lack of immigration enforcement.”

DeSantis made headlines in 2022 back then he flew migrants and refugees from Texas to Martha’s Vineyarda small, left-leaning resort town in Massachusetts, in what White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called a “cruel, premeditated political stunt.”

The Biden administration, meanwhile, awaits the outcome of the Supreme Court deliberations on Title 42which was invoked in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic to allow U.S. authorities to turn down most asylum seekers arriving at the country’s southern border with Mexico.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last April that Title 42 was “no longer necessary” to fight COVID-19, and in November a federal judge ruled the policy was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered it to be rescinded.

But Republican lawmakers are trying to keep the policy as a bulwark against immigration. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in February.

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