castle maria temp immigration detention centre
The migrants detained last week were held in the temporary immigration detention centre at Hotel Castle Maria (above). (Photo: ALLISON VAUGHN)

Eleven children younger than 6 were among 34 migrants apprehended on Feb. 14 and 15 on Cooper Island and in nearby waters, according to police and immigration officials.

Police initially announced the incident on Feb. 15, stating in a short press release that a vessel transporting “suspected illegal immigrants” had been intercepted shortly before midnight the previous night during a joint operation involving the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force and United States Customs and Border Protection.

“The vessel ran ashore on Cooper Island and 25 adults and children were found,” according to the press release. “Additional searches conducted during daylight around the island led to the discovery of an additional 10 individuals. The illegal immigrants have been handed over to the Immigration Department.”

The press release added that the whereabouts of the captain were “unknown” but stated that investigations were ongoing.

On Feb. 20, Ms. Thomas-Nero declined to provide further information.

“The immigrants were handed over to the Immigration Department,” she reiterated in response to queries. “Contact can be made with them to provide the particulars of your inquiry.”

Under 2 years old

Also on Feb. 20, Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Nadia Demming-Hodge provided more information, telling the Beacon that 34 migrants had been apprehended.

Thirty-two were Haitian, and the other two were Syrian men, Ms. Demming-Hodge wrote in an email.

All told, 18 of the migrants were males, including four children between the ages of 1.5 and 4, she stated.

The 16 females included seven children ranging from 1.5 to 5.5 years old.

The number of migrants attempting to leave Haiti spiked as gang violence soared in the wake of the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Castle Maria

As of the evening of Feb. 20, all the migrants were being held at Hotel Castle Maria, which is the Immigration Department’s designated temporary detention facility, according to Ms. Demming-Hodge.

“The department is currently undergoing its processes for repatriation,” she added. “Hence, I am unable to give a financial account at this time.”

Ms. Demming-Hodge noted that her department did not take part in the vessel interception, and so she could not comment on it.

Police haven’t said what type of boat the migrants were aboard or how the captain managed to evade capture.

Jeffrey Quiñones, the US Customs and Border Protection public affairs specialist for Puerto Rico and the USVI, told the Beacon Feb. 20 that he would send any available updates on the incident, but he has not provided further information.