At least nine people were killed, including an infant, in the Wednesday night accident, U.S. Coast Guard officials said. Sixteen more people were pulled out of the rough waters and likely will survive.
Although the Coast Guard hadn't figured out exactly how many people were aboard or how many might still be lost at sea, it appeared most of the passengers were from Haiti and the trip fit the profile of migrant smuggling.
"The boat was obviously overloaded," Capt. James Fitton said. "It's a tragedy that someone would be so callous with human life."
Since October, the Coast Guard had stopped 1,377 Haitians from trying to get to the U.S., an increase over the 972 during the same seven-month period last year. Four tropical storms and hurricanes battered the Western Hemisphere's poorest country during last year's harvest season, killing 793 people, crippling agriculture and causing $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.
In January, United Nations-sponsored groups said more aid was urgently needed to stave off famine in several areas of the country. For those familiar with the plight of Haitians, the escape attempt was no surprise.
"The economic conditions in Haiti are deplorable, and I don't see them getting any better any time soon," said Andy Gomez, a University of Miami expert on Caribbean migration. "And the Haitian-American community has developed a pretty good network here in the last five or 10 years, just as the Cuban-Americans have done, so there's more of a reason to come."
Fitton said the boat apparently left Bimini in the Bahamas on Tuesday night and was believed to have capsized or collided with something at about 2 a.m. Wednesday. Many Caribbean migrants who try to reach the U.S. arrange trips leaving from the Bahamas.
Officials didn't learn about the accident until another boater who spotted swimmers called more than 10 hours later about 15 miles off the shore of Boynton Beach, where water temperatures by the afternoon were in the high 70s.
The boat has not been found, and rescuers believed it sank because it hasn't been spotted from the air. Besides children, women also were aboard, including a pregnant woman.
The ship's sinking came as Haitian-American leaders met in Washington on Wednesday to lobby for temporary protective status, or TPS, for those from the country who make it to the U.S.
It would be an emergency measure to keep people from being deported to their homeland while it recovers from a natural disaster or major political upheaval. It has been granted to countries including El Salvador and Nicaragua but never to Haiti.
"If not now, when?" Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, asked of potentially granting Haitians protective status. "The longer it takes the administration to decide whether to grant TPS, the more people may decide to attempt to make it to our shores."
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