Alongside U.S. 1 in the Upper Florida Keys, the Old Highway still lives. It used to be the main road that spanned the island chain before the Overseas Highway was finished in 1938.
The Old Highway, as locals call it, runs behind restaurants, gas stations, gift shops. To the east are mansions and estates, mostly shrouded by vegetation and gates.
But there is something new that just sprung up amid the fancy homes and waterfront views: a tent city.
What is the tent city about?
Around mile marker 88.5 in the Village of Islamorada, a dead-end road leads east off the Old Highway called Aregood Lane. Last weekend, a camp was set up on eight vacant, privately owned lots.
The area now has more than a dozen trailers, a large air-conditioned tent, portable bathrooms, laundry facilities.
When a Miami Herald/FLKeysnews.com reporter checked it out Thursday morning, about a dozen Florida Highway Patrol vehicles were parked there, and several troopers stood around in the field talking.
The makeshift complex was built to house the influx in state law enforcement officers who were sent to the Florida Keys last month as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order to deal with the increase of migrant landings in the Keys, according to a statement released by the Islamorada village government.
The statement called the pop-up facility a “Base Camp” and emphasized: “This is NOT a migrant holding area.”
“This Base Camp is for storage of vehicles and a housing/ laundry facility for the National Guard and The FHP Officers sent here after the State of Emergency was declared, due to the influx of Migrant Landings in the Keys,” the statement reads.
Shannon Weiner, Monroe County’s director of Emergency Management, said the camp turned out to be needed because the added police officers and other personnel who were temporarily reassigned to the Keys were staying in hotel rooms. But those rooms are now needed for guests because the island chain is in the middle of its busy tourist season.
“The base camp belongs to the Florida Division of Emergency Management,” Weiner said. “Due to a lack of hotel availability in Monroe County it is being stood up to house state employees in Monroe assigned to the migrant response.
Kristen Livengood, Monroe County spokeswoman, said the county’s Tourist Development Council reports that hotel capacity is nearing 100%.
The camp is also opening when DeSantis’ Jan. 5 executive order is scheduled to expire in a little more than two weeks.
Alecia Collins, communications director for FDEM, said the contract is with AshBritt Environmental, a Deerfield Beach disaster relief company known for scoring huge government jobs following natural disasters, including after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“The current contract is for $2.1 million for 30 days, including mobilization and demobilization,” Collins said.
A Miami Herald reporter found mostly marked FHP cars, some unmarked police cars, cars and trucks from AshBritt Environmental, and equipment and trucks from a company called Ranco Response.
According to Monroe County Property Appraiser’s Office, the lots are owned by the company called Aregood, LLC. The main officer of Aregood, LLC is Randal Perkins, founder of AshBritt Environmental.
Representatives from AshBritt Environmental and Ranco Response did not respond to requests for comment on the base camp.
DeSantis issued his executive order as an already heavy surge of migrant landings in South Florida — mostly in the Keys — ramped up over the Christmas holidays. The situation became serious enough that federal officials closed the Dry Tortugas National Park because so many Cuban migrants arrived on the remote islands located about 70 miles west of Key West that the skeleton crew of park rangers became overwhelmed.
Reason behind the order
DeSantis ordered National Guard air crews to the Keys, as well as officers with the FHP, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
At the same time, the Biden administration ordered more federal agents and Coast Guard assets to the region, and also announced that all migrants, whether they reach land or are caught at sea, will be returned to their homelands.
Federal officials sources say they are not ready to publicly announce that the combined efforts are working. But, although migrant boats are still getting through — like one that Border Patrol agents said brought 18 people from Cuba to the Lower Keys Friday morning — they’re arriving at a much slower clip than weeks earlier.
Instead of the several landings a day that were happening in January, arrivals are now happening a few times a week, or less.
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Division of Emergency Management, there are 100 to 150 National Guard soldiers assigned to the Keys under the executive order.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission assigned 18 additional officers to the island chain, along with additional boats, including larger vessels like the 42-foot Fearless and 85-foot long Gulf Sentry.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has about 24 agents assigned to the Keys, and the Florida Highway Patrol assigned 31 additional troopers to the archipelago for the mission.