BY ALFONSO CHARDY | Miami Herald
Migrants stopped at sea most in 10 years
The largest number of migrants intercepted at sea in 2004 came from the Dominican Republic—but there were also large numbers from Haiti, Cuba and Ecuador.
Newly released figures show that 10,696 undocumented migrants were stopped at sea last year, the highest number since the Cuban rafter exodus in 1994.
The biggest number intercepted in 2004—Dominicans, followed by Haitians, Cubans and Ecuadoreans, according to figures released by the U.S. Coast Guard.
More than 4,500 Dominicans were interdicted, compared to almost 1,500 Cubans.
In contrast, the agency picked up 63,000 migrants in 1994, most of them Cubans. The 1980 Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans.
While figures show a migrant flow increase, the Coast Guard says they also reflect continued effectiveness in stopping large boatloads of foreign migrants.
No major boatload of migrants has evaded Coast Guard dragnets since a boat carrying more than 200 Haitians ran aground near Key Biscayne in October 2002.
But smaller boats still manage to evade detection and regularly deposit small numbers of Haitian, Cuban and other foreign migrants along South Florida coasts.
Lt. Tony Russell, Miami U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, said a significant number of migrants intercepted in recent times have arranged their voyage through smugglers.
Federal immigration officials say illegal migrants are increasingly turning to smugglers because of tougher post-9/11 border and visa controls.
Russell said economic conditions likely triggered the largest migrant flow from the Dominican Republic.
Most of them, Russell said, were stopped in the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Russell said that voyage is deadly.
‘‘In 2004, we know that 110 migrants died in the Mona Passage compared to 59 for the previous four years combined, almost a doubling of deaths,’’ Russell said. “One of our primary reasons to be out there is the safety of life at sea.’‘
NO MASS EXODUS
While the number of intercepted Cubans was the highest since the rafter exodus, the figure does not seem to portend a new mass migrantion from Cuba. Cuban interceptions in 2004 were only slightly higher than in 2003 and almost the same as in 1999.
The large number of Ecuadoreans were largely intercepted in the Pacific.
Other migrants intercepted included Chinese, Mexicans, Guyanese, Bahamians and Jamaicans.
Coast Guard officials said the increased number of migrants is a result of multiple factors.
But they noted that larger numbers are being stopped because federal agencies have been coordinating efforts better since they were taken over by the new Homeland Security department.
‘‘Obviously, the flow numbers are much larger, but we are much better at finding them and being able to interdict,’’ Russell said.
Citing an example, Russell said that when civil strife swept Haiti last year federal authorities responded by setting up a Homeland Security task force.
‘‘For the first time,’’ Russell said, “we prevented a mass migration from Haiti because we had a task force in place, the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast.’‘
Russell said the group operated a command center in a building in downtown Miami’s Brickell Avenue financial district with officers from several Homeland Security agencies including Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
‘‘We picked up about a dozen boats in a three-day period and in a very timely fashion repatriated these migrants,’’ Russell said.
“The importance of repatriations was to send a clear deterrance message to any potential migrants which, in our opinion, saved lives.’‘
Immigrant rights activists said Haitian migrants are being denied a chance to properly plead for asylum.
‘‘We continue to be concerned that interdicted Haitians are being summarily returned and don’t have a meaningful opportunity to make their case for asylum,’’ said Cheryl Little, executive director of Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.