A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

1995 – Migrant Interdiction- Operation ABLE RESPONSE and Beyond

There have been several mass migrations from Cuba and Haiti over the years. Starting with the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, which brought over 124,000 Cubans to the United States, migrant interdiction operations have demanded a substantial commitment of Coast Guard assets.  The first exodus of Haitians followed the collapse of the Duvalier regime in the early 1980s and a second took place after a military coup in 1991. In reality, from the Coast Guard perspective, these were massive search and rescue operations.

Dominican Yola

President Bush in response to political and economic pressure issued Executive Order 12807 in 1992 directing the Secretary of Transportation to issue appropriate instructions to the Coast Guard to enforce the suspension of the entry of undocumented aliens into the United States and to interdict the vessels carrying them. President Clinton issued a Presidential Directive in June 1993, directing the Coast Guard and other Federal law enforcement agencies to cooperate in the suppression of alien smuggling. The Coast Guard mission transitioned from search and rescue to law enforcement operations. In practice, however, the interdiction operations remained as much humanitarian as they were law enforcement.  Migrants typically took and still take great risks and endure significant hardships in their attempts to gain entry into the United States. In many cases, migrant vessels interdicted at sea are overloaded, unseaworthy, lack basic safety equipment and are operated by inexperienced seamen.

Coast Guard surge operations in 1994 were effective in countering the mass Haitian and Cuban migrations. In 1995, with Cuban and Haitian migration threats low, the Coast Guard addressed migration issues in the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The Dominican Republic has historically been a major source country for undocumented migrants attempting to enter the United States by way of Puerto Rico.  Thousands of people have taken to sea in a variety of vessels, the most common a homemade fishing vessel known as a Yola.  However, most of these migrants were 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.

There was an increase in Cuban interdictions in 1998.  A large part of the increase in flow was driven by aggressive professional smuggling.  The rafts and broken down vessels of the past were replaced by fast moving motor vessels. There was a tendency to oversell seats resulting in crowded vessels without safety equipment. There was also an increase in Haitian interdictions. Numbers of migrants varied greatly depending on the size of the vessel. It was not uncommon for 60 foot vessels to have up to 500 migrants aboard. In the late 1990s the Haitian migrant vessels shifted their routes from direct landings on United States shores to the Bahamas. Once in the Bahamas, the Haitians were professionally smuggled the short distance to Florida in small groups on a variety of small craft that were difficult to interdict as they mixed with the legitimate boating public.

Coast Guard assets engaged in migrant interdiction mission consist of patrol boats, medium endurance cutters, high endurance cutters, and all types of Coast Guard aircraft. Helicopters are used for inshore patrols and are also deployed on the medium and high endurance cutters which enhance the cutter’s range of operation. In addition HU-25s out of Air Stations Miami and Borinquen and C-130s out of Air Station Clearwater flew scheduled patrols in assigned areas. The fixed-wing assets are also deployed to locations throughout the Caribbean when support is needed. The multi-mission capability of the Coast Guard enhances the effectiveness of Migrant Interdiction efforts as aircraft and cutters can perform Migrant Interdiction and Drug Interdiction efforts simultaneously.

(Note: The HU-25 aircraft were replaced by HC-144 aircraft beginning in 2009)

Most migrants interdicted by the Coast Guard are not brought into the U.S. but rather repatriated to the country from which they originally departed. There is a U.S.—Cuban Repatriation Accord (of May 2, 1995) which allows the Coast Guard to repatriate most Cubans interdicted at sea directly to Cuba. Although the U.S. currently has no formal repatriation agreement with the Dominican Republic, in all cases the Government of the Dominican Republic has allowed repatriation of migrants. The Haitian migration agreement expired in 1995 and Haitian repatriations are conducted on a case-by-case, no objection basis. At this time, Haiti has not objected to these repatriations.

Through most of the 1990s, The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) was the greatest source of human trafficking by sea and intelligence sources estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 illegal Chinese aliens entered the Western Hemisphere each year, most ultimately destined for the United States. The PRC smuggling problem encompassed the coastal areas of the continental United States, and territories such as Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The PRC smuggling vessels transited to these locations, offloaded their migrant cargo to smaller pick-up vessels at distances ranging from one mile to hundreds of miles offshore.  PRC migrants paid about $35,000 for their perilous voyage to the United States. At this price, one average boatload of PRC aliens is worth over $5 million in gross revenues to the smugglers.

PRC smuggling ventures are planned and crewed by violent, highly organized criminal operations. For every five to ten migrants, there is at least one professional “enforcer” or “snakehead” that intimidates and physically abuses the migrants to maintain control and ensure future payment of smuggling fees. These “snakeheads” have often instigated the migrants to riot, set fires, and even attempted to create flooding /explosions to protest Coast Guard presence onboard the smuggling vessels. This creates a dangerous situation for Coast Guard boarding teams. The PRC smuggling vessels are typically in very poor condition, are in many cases unseaworthy, and typically exhibit cramped, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions. These realities exacerbate the problems Coast Guard law enforcement personnel face.

While there were small groups of PRC migrants island-hopping through the Caribbean into Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the vast majority of the PRC maritime flow was on coastal freighter-type vessels or retired fishing vessels and interdicted by the Coast Guard far offshore. At the end of the 1990s PRC smugglers found that Guam offered a gateway to the continental U.S., since U.S. immigration laws apply there and the distance is only 1,700 miles from China, vice 8,000 miles required to reach the continental U.S.

Cooperative efforts between the Coast Guard and INS resulted in many successful interdictions, but the Coast Guard was challenged in responding to these smuggling events. Coast Guard assets in Guam were a 180-foot buoy tender and a 110-foot patrol boat. Overwhelmed, Coast Guard   C-130 aircraft assisted by DOD assets were deployed from Hawaii for surveillance patrols. A high endurance cutter with an embarked helicopter, an additional buoy tender and a patrol boat were also assigned. From mid 1998 through 1999 Coast Guard units interdicted 1463 migrants and 90 smugglers/crew members from 18 PRC smuggling vessels. The INS set up tent cities on Tinian, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), for processing. PRC migrants are repatriated by means of direct negotiation by the U.S. Government or with the assistance of a third government.

Ecuadorian fishing boat with illegal immigrants aboard

In 1999 and 2000, Coast Guard cutters on counter-drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific encountered increasing numbers of migrants being smuggled from Ecuador to points in Central America and Mexico.  In most cases these people cross the southern border and enter the United States by land route. 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.

Between 1981 and 2003 the Coast Guard interdicted 186,568 undocumented migrants attempting to enter the United States by maritime routes. Tactics and equipment have improved since 1981 and over the last five years an average interdiction rate of 87% has been obtained. The ability of aviation assets to cover large areas in minimal time has contributed significantly to these efforts.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established Mar. 1, 2003, to help integrate the effort of those agencies tasked with providing for the security of the nation. Among these agencies was the United States Coast Guard. The department’s homeland security strategy is to secure our borders by pushing them out so threats can be detected, evaluated and responded to before they ever reach the U.S. The successful execution of this strategy in the maritime realm requires coordinated effort by the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as other federal, state and local partners.

The Early Years

The Growth Years

Coming Of Age

The Modern Era

The Present Era

Oral History