Wayne Justice was skipper of a Coast Guard cutter out of Key West in the spring of 1980 when his patrol ran into boatloads of Cuban refugees fleeing to freedom in the United States. He remembers thinking it would end soon.
U.S. insists it’s ready if another Cuban mass migration occurs
By Curt Anderson
The Associated Press
Posted April 9 2005, 11:31 AM EDT
“Little did we know that this was the start of a pretty crazy time,’’ said Justice, now chief of staff of the Coast Guard’s district that patrols the Southeast and Caribbean.
The boats turned out to be the beginnings of a huge wave of 125,000 Cubans coming to the United States after Cuban President Fidel Castro opened the Mariel port west of Havana to people seeking to leave the communist island.
The mass migration included a “freedom flotilla’’ of thousands of private boats, often of questionable seaworthiness, that Cuban-Americans used to bring relatives to the United States. It caught the U.S. and Florida governments woefully unprepared and over the years led to changes in immigration policies.
Unlike 1980, when U.S. officials had to scramble to deal with the Mariel crisis, the government now has a detailed sea, air and land plan to handle mass migrations from Cuba, Haiti or any other nation to the Southeast U.S. coast.
“If there is a mass migration threat to Florida, there’s lots of plans in place,’’ said Amos Rojas Jr., special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Miami office. “My sense is it’s better to be prepared than to have the chaos we had in 1980.’‘
The plan, dubbed “Operation Vigilant Sentry,’’ was developed by the Homeland Security Department along with Florida officials and the military. It reflects the greater sense of urgency surrounding border security in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Its central goal is to intercept migrants at sea _ preferably close to their home shores _ and immediately return them in hopes of deterring more people from attempting a dangerous ocean crossing.
The concept had a dry run of sorts in February 2004, when the government of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide collapsed. Nearly 1,000 Haitians were intercepted by the Coast Guard during the chaos and immediately repatriated. But a much-feared mass migration never happened.
Concerns about another mass migration from Cuba similar to Mariel and an exodus of about 30,000 in 1994 have surfaced in recent years, usually when tensions mount between the U.S. government and Castro’s regime or when there is economic or political strife in Cuba.
But if there are signs of a mass migration, the Coast Guard plans to set up a perimeter around Cuba, with help from U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft such as the sophisticated Orion P-3 radar plane that is also used in drug interdiction operations. The response will be coordinated from a command center in Miami.
The Coast Guard and other state and federal agencies will try to prevent people from leaving by boat from Florida in an attempt to pick up migrants trying to reach U.S. shores.
Yet, if anything approaching Mariel’s scale happens again, some people will get through. And federal law dictates how they are handled, with Cubans having a clear advantage under the so-called “wet foot-dry foot’’ policy that has its roots in U.S. efforts to undermine the Castro government.
Back in 1980, President Carter initially adopted an open-door policy for Mariel refugees, then acted to stop private boats from leaving U.S. shores to pick them up. In 1994, with Castro threatening to unleash another Mariel, President Clinton took only a few days to halt the open-door policy.
And after the 1994 crisis, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement setting limits on Cuban immigration.
Under the “wet foot-dry foot’’ policy, Cuban migrants who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay, while those intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba. Those who display a genuine fear of persecution if returned are taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to await asylum in a third country.
The policy has been criticized as being unfair to Haitians and others because they don’t have the right to stay if they reach U.S. soil. Under an oft-criticized decision by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, these immigrants also can be detained indefinitely while immigration judges consider their individual cases.
“The Cubans were given benefits,’’ said Ira Kurzban, a Miami attorney and longtime Haitian activist who has represented Aristide in the United States. “The Haitians were given nothing.’‘
Back in 1980, there was virtually no system for processing large numbers of immigrants or providing health care or housing. More than two dozen federal agencies descended upon then-sleepy Key West to deal with the thousands of Cubans who were arriving. Some were held there and others were kept in a tent city at Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium.
The current plan calls for holding as many migrants as possible off U.S. soil _ Guantanamo Bay is one likely site _ and sending others to preselected detention facilities around the country.
Rojas said the state has designated facilities in Palm Beach, Broward, Dade and Monroe counties to handle the migrants’ medical needs and begin documenting them.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will look for human smugglers and the Drug Enforcement Administration officials will keep tabs on illicit drugs, both of which are a daily concern. And everyone will watch for terrorists trying to sneak in, a high-profile concern since the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Coast Guard’s Justice said “the potential is always there’’ for terrorists to attempt to enter the United States through long-established smuggling routes in the Caribbean. But he added that not a single suspected terrorist was caught among the 11,000 migrants intercepted at sea in 2004.
“It is a high-risk way for them to attempt to get into the United States,’’ Justice said.