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U.S. Coast Guard Responds to Deadly Surge in Migration at Sea

In 2022, the Coast Guard saw one of the deadliest years for illegal migration in recent history. The service has added more resources stop illegal migration and rescue those in distress before the sea claims their lives.

Coast Guard interdicts migrant vessel off Haiti, January 27, 2022
Image courtesy USCG Southeast

Published Jan 29, 2023 5:56 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By PO1 Nicole J. Groll]

Homeland Security Task Force – Southeast's Operation Vigilant Sentry was first approved in 2004, and it deploys air and surface assets to address illegal maritime migration in the Caribbean corridor of the United States. The primary objective: to protect the safety of life at sea, and to deter and dissuade maritime mass migration with our federal, state and local partners.

The director of Homeland Security Task Force – Southeast is the commander for the Seventh Coast Guard District. Migrant interdiction is one of the 11 statutory missions assigned to the Coast Guard by Congress, giving the military service the authority to take the lead role in the ongoing and historic migrant surge.

Operation Vigilant Sentry is not country specific, but it is a framework for any Caribbean country. The most common nationalities trying to illegally migrate to Florida by sea are Cuban and Haitian. Despite the unique challenges faced by each country, the rationale for illegal migration can occur for any number of various reasons.

“The risk migrants are willing to take are unfathomable to most Americans: escaping poverty, violence, human trafficking, and persecution are a few realities,” said Cmdr. Ray Caro, chief of intelligence for Operation Vigilant Sentry. “Although change is gradual across nations in the Western Hemisphere, the frequency at which these challenges present themselves is certainly increasing. Politics, migration policies and natural disasters amplify those realities and trigger migration. As a result, maritime migration has been a lifesaving priority for the Coast Guard for more than 40 years.”

The weather, the possibility of drowning, the general unpredictability of the maritime domain all stand as barriers not just to the goals of illegal migrants, but also as threats to their very lives.

“These individuals are ignoring real risks,” said Chief Warrant Officer Matthew James, Coast Guard Station Islamorada’s commanding officer. “Just about every vessel we encounter in these voyages were constructed haphazardly with improvised materials and were taking on water. The few vessels that appeared to be well built were dangerously overloaded and capsizing was imminent when we arrived on scene. It’s very dangerous to try and cross the Florida Straits this way.”

In 2022, the Coast Guard saw one of the deadliest years for illegal migration in recent history with approximately 65 people dying trying to make it to the U.S. In 2020, the Coast Guard recorded 17 deaths and five in 2021. Despite the increased numbers and risk, the service remains dedicated to the preservation of life, imploring those who would see illegal maritime migration as an option.

"The Coast Guard and our partners are working to stop senseless migration-related deaths at sea by rescuing people in rustic, unsafe vessels," said Capt. Benjamin Golightly, incident commander, Operation Vigilant Sentry. "Help us by not paying smugglers and instead, encourage safe, legal migration."

Historically, Florida is no stranger to illegal migration. According to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 was established to allow Cuban natives and citizens living in the U.S. at least two years to apply to become lawful permanent residents by getting a Green Card. This applied to the Cuban arrivals who were paroled into the U.S. fleeing communism. In 1995, the so-called Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy was adopted. This meant if illegal migrants were stopped at sea, they were returned to their country of origin or departure. If they were stopped on land, they would eventually be paroled and able to apply for the Cuban Adjustment Act. In 2017, former President Obama repealed the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy.

After the repeal, illegal migration by sea declined for several years, but Coast Guard crews are seeing an increase once again.

Haitians started coming to the U.S. at the end of 1972 fleeing communism, according to the University of Texas’ history department. In 1998, the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act was enacted by Congress for eligible Haitian nationals in the U.S. to become legal permanent residents.

“As Haiti’s overall situation continues to erode, our crews have witnessed an alarming uptick in maritime migration; we see spikes in this dangerous activity following natural disasters or socio-economical events,” said Capt. Robert Kinsey, operations chief for Operation Vigilant Sentry. “These vessels are shockingly overloaded; when you see it firsthand, it’s almost unbelievable. Smugglers are coercing desperate people to endure unthinkable conditions for long periods of time. Many of our crews arrive just in time to rescue them from peril.”

The typical 40 to 50-foot Haitian sail freighter intercepted by Coast Guard assets have anywhere from 150 to 300 people aboard these overcrowded, unsafe vessels. A typical safe sailboat can safely hold about 30.

Back in July 2021, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas told Cubans and Haitians in a press conference not to come to the U.S. by sea, noting the clear threats posed by the maritime domain. “The time is never right to attempt migration by sea,” said Mayorkas. “To those who risk their lives doing so, this risk is not worth taking. Allow me to be clear: if you take to the Sea, you will not come to the United States.”

Cubans and Haitians who take to the sea and try to land in the U.S. may be ineligible for the parole process and will be placed in removal proceedings, he said. People interdicted at sea will be repatriated to their country of origin or departure.

Illegal migration at sea is not only dangerous for the people attempting it, but it causes their family members unnecessary distress due to not knowing if their loved ones are alive or not.

“Family members call our command center all the time,” said Lt. Paul Benyovszky, a Sector Key West enforcement officer. “It can be a struggle to maintain our emotional balance when family members are crying and begging for information we don’t have.”

This isn’t an easy mission, and illegal migration isn’t going to go away, he said.

Since the new fiscal year started in October, crews interdicted 5,321 Cubans and 1,766 Haitians at sea. The service increased manpower and assets to the area to stop illegal migration at sea and rescue those in distress before the sea claims their lives.

The Coast Guard continues to be the lead federal agency charged with this mission, and the crews and partner agencies are doing their very best to ensure people go home alive at the end of the day.

This article appears courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard News and may be found in its unabbreviated form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.