The U.S. Coast Guard says the number of undocumented migrants stopped at sea in 2004 more than doubled from 2003, reaching the highest numbers since 1994. Coast Guard officials say the high numbers also show increased inter-agency effectiveness when it comes to stopping migrants.
U.S. Coast Guard officials say they stopped 10,696 undocumented migrants at sea last year, the highest number since 1994 when it picked up 63,000 migrants, mostly Cubans and Haitians at the height of the Cuban and Haitian rafter crisis. By contrast the Coast Guard stopped just under 5000 undocumented migrants at sea in all of 2003.
Nearly half of the migrants stopped last year were from the Dominican Republic, which suffered an economic downturn after a banking collapse. Most were attempting to reach Puerto Rico across the Mona Passage. Coast Guard Lieutenant Tony Russell of the Coast Guard's Miami command says it is a perilous journey.
"Well those are extremely dangerous waters,” he said. “You have to cross the Mona Passage, which is a location where currents and winds mix together to create a sort of dishwasher effect. A lot of these voyages are by smugglers who are operating poorly built handmade vessels, and there are no lifejackets, just cramming them full of migrants, so when something goes wrong it is often deadly. In the last year we have seen 110 deaths that we know about and the number is likely much higher. That is compared to about 59 in the four years previous to that."
The other large group of migrants Coast Guard officials picked up last year was from Haiti. Nearly 5000 Haitians tried to leave, many early in the year, when the country was wracked by political turmoil. Lieutenant Russell says a much larger migration from Haiti was prevented because officials created an inter-agency task force to deal with the problem early on.
"So the Coast Guard, Immigrations, Customs and Border Patrol got together as Homeland Security Task Force South East and drafted an operations plan to address from a unified homeland security perspective how we would respond to a mass migration,” he added. “Then, in February of last year with the turmoil inside Haiti and the potential for a mass migration we were given the task of preventing a mass migration from Haiti. That task force was activated and working as one unit were able to subsequently prevent a mass migration and ultimately save lives."
Coast Guard officials say they also stopped more than 1000 Cubans at sea in 2004, about the same number as the year before. Cubans picked up at sea are repatriated, but those who manage to reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay.
The Coast Guard also picked up a large number of Ecuadorians in the Pacific Ocean in 2004. Other migrants intercepted were Mexicans, Chinese, Bahamians, Guyanese, and Jamaicans.