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Alien Migrant Interdiction

History of the U.S. Coast Guard in Illegal Immigration (1794-1971)

The Coast Guard has enforced immigration laws as directed by the President and Congress virtually since the birth of the United States. The Coast Guard’s introduction to immigration enforcement came with the passage of anti-slavery legislation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the federal government’s only means of enforcing laws on the waters surrounding the nation, the Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard, was charged with enforcing the nation’s anti-slavery laws. The service’s responsibilities increased as Congress Passed immigration restrictions, primarily concerning Chinese immigration, in the mid-nineteenth century. The significant milestones included:

March 22nd, 1794: Congress declared that no American citizen may carry slaves from the U.S. to another nation or between foreign nations. Revenue cutter GOVERNOR JAY seized one vessel in 1799 attempting to transport slaves to Cuba.

Jan 1st, 1808: Importation of slaves into the U.S. was declared illegal. Congress charged the Revenue Cutter Service with enforcing the law on the high seas. In 1820 the revenue cutter DALLAS seized the brig ANTELOPE with 280 slaves aboard.

May 15th, 1820: Congress declared the foreign slave trade to be piracy and instituted the death penalty for any U.S. citizen engaged in the slave trade.

Feb 19th, 1862: Congress prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers, known as "Coolies" and forbade U.S. flagged vessels and U.S. citizens from participating in that trade.

May 19th, 1921: Congress passed a quota law that limited the number of migrants in any year to 3% of the number of each nationality.

1924: Congress excluded Japanese immigrants as "aliens ineligible for citizenship".

May 26th, 1924: Congress passed a new quota law that further limited immigration to 2%.

June 30th, 1952: Congress passed a law that codified U.S. immigration laws and ended the ban against the immigration of Asian and Pacific people.

From 1794 through 1980 the Coast Guard conduct migrant interdiction only as an adjunct to a primary mission such as Search and Rescue or though the boarding of a suspicious vessel.

In 1965, Castro opened the port of Camarioca to anyone who wanted to sail to Cuba to retrieve their relatives. 2,979 Cubans made the voyage to Florida, most assisted by private boats from the U.S.. The Coast Guard rescued persons in danger and prevented unauthorized vessels from making the hazardous journey. Because of the disorganized, dangerous and haphazard nature of the exodus, the U.S. government negotiated and organized a series of "Freedom Flights" of chartered commercial aircraft with the Cuban government to transport those who wished to leave Cuba safely and efficiently. The flights lasted until 1971 and in total transported 260,561 to freedom. Such operations reduced the risk for both the migrants and those charged with enforcing immigration laws. 

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Last Modified 8/4/2011