Multi-Tasking Coast Guard Does a Lot Besides Stopping Illegal Entries

By David North on February 28, 2011

Since I am curious about the apparent current and strange lack of illegal entry attempts from Haiti in recent months, I have been following the flow of press releases out of Coast Guard's Seventh District headquarters in Miami.

The image I get is an entity as busy as a one-armed paperhanger, who is also charged with cooking the meals, watching the dog, changing the baby . . . and catching illegal immigrants.

While the Border Patrol has some 20,000 agents doing little but watch the border, the Coast Guard units working out of Miami have a long list of duties, and a lot of water to cover. In addition to looking for illicit entries of people and drugs, it also performs a wide variety of search and rescue operations not only in U.S. waters but throughout the Caribbean.

There were, for instance, in the very recent past, these headlines: "Coast Guard Assists aground vessel off Nicaragua" and "Coast Guard rescues distressed snorkeler in the British Virgin Islands".

You might think that these tasks would have been performed by, respectively, the Nicaraguan and the British Navies, but the Brits' Navy has long since been condensed to a fraction of its former might, and one wonders if there ever was a Nicaraguan Navy. Anyway, we have the ships, the resolve, and the money, so it our Coast Guard (the responsible and responsive entity in the region) that takes care of such matters.

Back to the Haitians.

In years gone by, there used to be numerous attempts by smugglers to deliver Haitians to Florida's beaches, often in what the Coast Guard calls "rustic vessels." The Coast Guard would seize the badly overcrowded, leaky old "wooden freighter", give everyone on board a good meal, warm and dry clothes, and whatever short-term medical attention was needed, and then repatriate them at Cap-Haïtien, Haiti's slightly less poverty-stricken second city, on its north coast. Last year's earthquake did not reach that city.

There is still some of that going on, but not much. Now that the hurricane season is over, one might have expected some more intercepted illegal entries from Haiti, but the CG reported intercepting only four Haitians in January, and five so far in February. Meanwhile, there were, in those two months, much more numerous interceptions of small groups of Cubans, who can get to the U.S., more or less safely, in smaller boats than one would need to make the longer journey from Haiti.

Why the apparent lack of interceptions at sea of would-be illegal Haitian immigrants?

I think several things are going on: first, while I assume that the CG tells us every time they catch somebody, that organization is spread pretty thin – too thin – in those waters; second, middle-class Haitians have other, safer ways, to seek to enter the U.S. illegally; and third, the fact that Haiti is on an island, as Mexico is not, means that those seeking to be EWIs (entering without inspection) from Haiti, have too few resources to attempt the sea voyage, or to do it very often.

Meanwhile, I cannot help but wonder if there are not attempts, from time to time, to distract the Coast Guard from its law-enforcement duties. I think this would be much more likely to be the handy work of the wealthy and imaginative drug smugglers than of any Haitian coyotes.

But if you were planning a major drug delivery to an obscure port in Florida, might not you set up some fisherman or snorkeler to be rescued at the same time that your delivery takes place? Or sink a cheap, old freighter?

Some years ago, when I was an observer on board an INS helicopter flying over the border near San Diego, I saw a similar stunt, a feint; it was a brief, probing entry by an old car from Mexico, followed by a serious attempt to cross the Otay Mesa by another vehicle. As I recall it, the first car returned to Mexico without incident, but the second one blew a tire, and ran back to safety on its rim. There is a stout fence there now.

Maybe a Caribbean version of that scenario fits a novel better than real life . . . or maybe not.