As the United States' primary maritime law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard is tasked with enforcing immigration law at sea. The Coast Guard conducts patrols and coordinates with other federal agencies and foreign countries to interdict undocumented migrants at sea, denying them entry via maritime routes to the United States, its territories and possessions. Thousands of people try to enter this country illegally every year using maritime routes, many via smuggling operations. Interdicting migrants at sea means they can be quickly returned to their countries of origin without the costly processes required if they successfully enter the United States.
When successful, illegal immigration can potentially cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year in social services. In addition to relieving this financial burden on our citizens, the Coast Guard's efforts help to support legal migration systems. Primarily, the Coast Guard maintains its humanitarian responsibility to prevent the loss of life at sea, since the majority of migrant vessels are dangerously overloaded, unseaworthy or otherwise unsafe.
As the primary maritime law enforcement agency,
the Coast Guard is tasked with enforcing immigration law at sea. The Coast
Guard conducts patrols and coordinates with other
federal agencies and foreign countries to interdict undocumented migrants at
sea, denying them entry via maritime routes to the U.S., its territories and
possessions. Interdicting migrants at sea means they can be quickly
returned to their countries of origin without the costly processes required if
they successfully enter the United States. The Coast Guard supports the
National Policy to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration.
Illegal immigration can costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year in social services. In addition to relieving this financial burden on our citizens, the Coast Guard's efforts help to support the use of legal migration systems. Primarily, the Coast Guard maintains its humanitarian responsibility to prevent the loss of life at sea, since the majority of migrant vessels are dangerously overloaded, unseaworthy or otherwise unsafe.
Protection from political persecution and torture are important concerns for the U.S. During the course of migrant interdictions, Coast Guard crews may encounter migrants requesting protection. The Department of State (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration) and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services establish the policies in this area and handle all potential asylum cases on our cutters.
The Coast Guard's role in migrant interdiction has been a part of our history since the service's inception (see History of Coast Guard in Illegal Immigration). The mission gained high visibility during the first mass migration emergency the United States faced between April 21 and September 28, 1980. Fidel Castro permitted any person who wanted to leave Cuba free access to depart from the port of Mariel, Cuba. Known as the Mariel Boatlift, approximately 124,000 undocumented Cuban migrants entered the United States by a flotilla of mostly U.S. vessels in violation of U.S. law. The Coast Guard interdicted vessels en route to Mariel Harbor, as well as provided search and rescue assistance to vessels bound for the United States. The Coast Guard also provided assistance to other federal agencies in the processing, investigation and prosecution of boat owners suspected of violating U.S. law.
The hazards of illegal maritime migration was highlighted in 1981, when the bodies of 30 Haitian migrants washed ashore on Hillsboro Beach, FL. In response to 1980 mass migration from Cuba and the increasing number of Haitian migrants landing in the U.S., on September 29, 1981, President Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 4865, which suspended the entry of undocumented migrants to the U.S. from the high seas.
Between 1991 and 1995, there was a dramatic increase in the number of undocumented migrants interdicted by the Coast Guard. During this period, over 120,000 migrants from 23 countries were interdicted. Haitian migrants began increased departures after a 1991 coup in Haiti. These migrants were processed for asylum claims first on ships, then at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). Those that were identified as leaving for economic reasons were returned to Haiti. The camp eventually became a magnet for those departing seeking food, shelter, and a chance to get into the U.S. During this time, the camp at GTMO contained over 12,000 migrants.
In 1992, President Bush issued Executive Order 12807 directing the Coast Guard to enforce the suspension of the entry of undocumented migrants by interdicting them at sea, and return them to their country of origin or departure.
In 1993, Operation ABLE MANNER commenced. This operation concentrated Coast Guard patrols in the Windward Passage (the body of water between Haiti and Cuba) to interdict Haitian migrants. Operation ABLE MANNER continued until a new government was in place in Haiti in 1994. Today, Haitian migrants still leave Haiti attempting to reach the U.S. Many travel to the Bahamas and enter on smaller boats, while some attempt direct entry to the U.S. in large boat loads. There is a Coast Guard Liaison Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Port au Prince, Haiti, who handles various migration, counterdrug, and international engagement issues with Haiti.
In 1994, the Coast Guard was involved in its largest peacetime operation since the Vietnam war, responding to two mass migrations at the same time-first from Haiti, then from Cuba. Over 63,000 migrants were rescued and prevented from illegally entering the U.S. in Operations ABLE MANNER and ABLE VIGIL. At its height, Operation ABLE MANNER involved 17 U.S. Coast Guard vessels, patrolling the coast of Haiti while Operation ABLE VIGIL involved 38 Coast Guard cutters patrolling the Straits of Florida. Migration from Cuba continues. There has been a shift from migrants taking to sea in rafts to employing smugglers. The dangers of this are no less than rafting as illustrated by the deaths of numerous migrants in 1998-2000, when overloaded vessels capsized.
The Dominican Republic has historically been a major source country for undocumented migrants attempting to enter the U.S.. Crossing the Mona Passage (the body of water between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico) to enter Puerto Rico, thousands of people have taken to sea in a variety of vessels, the most common is a homemade fishing vessel known as a Yola. Most of these migrants are smuggled by highly organized gangs. From April 1, 1995 through October 1, 1997, the Coast Guard conducted Operation ABLE RESPONSE, with enhanced operations dedicated to interdicting Dominican migrants. Over 9,500 migrants were interdicted or forced to turn back.
In addition to the migrant threat from these Caribbean countries, there has been an alarming increase in the number of migrants from Asia, most of whom are from the People's Republic of China. Very often Chinese migrants rely on well-organized, extremely violent, alien smugglers to gain entry into the United States. The living conditions on the vessels used to smuggle migrants are appalling, with overcrowded holds and unsafe sanitary conditions. In many cases, migrants are transferred to smaller pick up vessels offshore for the final ride to the U.S., or they're taken to Central American countries and smuggled across the U.S. land border. Beginning in 1998, more Chinese migrants began making trips from China attempting to enter Guam, which continues to be a significant problem. The International Information Programs has additional information on Chinese Alien Smuggling.
In 1999 and 2000, Coast Guard cutters on Counterdrug patrol in the Eastern Pacific have encountered increasing numbers of migrants being smuggled from Ecuador to points in Central America and Mexico. While this may not have a direct connection to the U.S., the Coast Guard acts for humanitarian reasons. Most of these vessels do not have the proper conditions to transport these migrants and lack the safety equipment in the event of an emergency. The Coast Guard works with the flag state of the vessels and other countries to escort the vessels to the closest safe port.
Undocumented migrants continue to pose a threat to the U.S. today. While the primary threat comes from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the People's Republic of China, and Cuba, the Coast Guard has interdicted migrants of various nationalities throughout the world.
USCG Migrant Interdiction Statistics: