Stopping Illegal Migration At Sea
by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Nicole Groll
January 30, 2023
Homeland Security Task Force –
Southeast was established in 2003 by the Department of Homeland
Security. This interagency task force is comprised of resources
and assets from the U.S. Coast Guard, the departments of
Homeland Security, State, Defense, Health and Human Services, as
well as those from state and local agencies.
provide the organizational framework to monitor migration trends
to detect and respond to a maritime mass migration.
Operation Vigilant Sentry (OVS) was first approved in 2004. It is the
arm of the task force that deploys joint air and surface assets
and personnel to address illegal maritime migration in the
Caribbean corridor of the United States.
The primary objective is ...
to protect the safety of life at sea, and to deter and dissuade
a maritime mass migration with our federal, state and local
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.
Haitians are transferred from a grossly overloaded, unsafe vessel to Coast Guard Cutter Campbell's small boat approximately 20 miles south of Turks and Caicos
on May 9, 2022. The Haitians were repatriated to Haiti on May 11, 2022. (Image
created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Villa-Rodriguez.)
OVS is also 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
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
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
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
“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
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
“The time is never right to attempt migration by
sea,” said Alejandro N. Mayorkas, DHS Secretary. “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
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.
July 6, 2022 - A Coast Guard Station Key West law enforcement crew comes across a migrant vessel about three miles south of Key West, Florida with those aboard repatriated to Cuba on July 8, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Station Key West)
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.
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.
Coast Guard Gifts
| U.S. Coast Guard
| U.S. Department
of Homeland Security