The Harsh Reality of US Coast Guard Migrant Policy





John Konrad
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December 10, 2023

by John Konrad (gCaptain)

When merchant and cruise ships rescue migrants at sea, they offer more than just a lifeline from the perilous waters; they provide critical sustenance and care. However, this act of compassion is just the beginning of a much more complex journey. Once the U.S. Coast Guard takes over, these vulnerable souls, including young children, are thrust into a labyrinth of Department of Homeland Security policies and Presidential directives. Far from the safety they seek, they face a new sea of danger that can be as daunting as the treacherous waters they escaped. This stark reality highlights a deep moral dilemma within the maritime world.

Last week ProPublica and The New York Timespublished a hard hitting article that casts a stark and unsettling light on the subsequent experiences of these migrants, with a particular emphasis on the treatment of unaccompanied minors by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Haitian authorities to whom they are repatriated. This investigative piece not only reveals the perils and challenges these migrants face but also resonates profoundly with a wide spectrum of individuals connected to maritime activities, encompassing ship captains, maritime authorities, ship owners and humanitarian organizations.

Related Article: Migrant Children Are a Crisis for the U.S. Coast Guard

“The Coast Guard frames its operations in the sea as lifesaving work: Crews rescue people from boats at risk of capsizing and pull them from the water,” says Seth Freed Wessler who authored the article. “But the agency, which is an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, also operates as a maritime border patrol, its ships as floating holding facilities. Since the summer of 2021, the Coast Guard has detained more than 27,000 people, a number larger than in any similar period in nearly three decades. On a single day in January, the agency’s fleet of ships off the Florida coast collectively held more than 1,000 people. The public has no way of knowing what happens on board. Unlike at the U.S.-Mexico border, which is closely monitored by advocates, the courts and the press, immigration enforcement at sea takes place out of public view.”

One of the many migrants Wessler interviewed said the days they spent detained on Coast Guard cutters was an experience that “will remain a scar in each person’s mind.”

Asylum does not apply at sea

“Asylum does not apply at sea,” a Coast Guard spokesperson told Wessler. 

A Coast Guard Cutter Campbell law enforcement team and Coast Guard Cutter Raymond Evans’ crew stop grossly overloaded, unsafe vessel in the Windward Passage off Haiti’s coast, May 5, 2022. The people were repatriated to Haiti May 9, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Cutter Campbell)

At the heart of ProPublica’s narrative is the story of Tcherry, a 10-year-old Haitian boy, and Claire and Beana, two young sisters. Their journey, fraught with danger and uncertainty, is a stark reminder of the perils faced by many who undertake this risky passage. The detailed account of their experiences from a smuggler’s house in the Bahamas to a precarious boat journey towards the U.S. shores, to Tcherry’s subsequent escape from Haitian holding facility brings to light the desperate circumstances that drive these individuals to such extremes.

One problem Wessler identifies is the approach the US Coast Guard takes to handling unaccompanied minors starkly contrasts between land-based immigration policies and those enforced at sea. On land, particularly at U.S. borders, unaccompanied minors from nations other than Mexico and Canada are not simply repatriated. Instead, they are assigned to government caseworkers, often placed in shelters, and potentially united with family members, setting them on a path towards legal residency. While this system is not without its flaws, it operates on the fundamental belief that children require safeguarding. This principle, however, is not as clear-cut in maritime contexts. The extent of protections afforded to minors on U.S. vessels, even those detained in U.S. territorial waters, remains undetermined by U.S. courts.

“Of the almost 500 unaccompanied children held on the agency’s cutters in the Caribbean and the Straits of Florida between July 2021 and early September 2023, five were allowed into the United States, because federal agencies believed they would face persecution at home,” writes Wessler. “This occurs amid escalating violence in Haiti, including the documented murder and rape of children.”

A Reflection for the Maritime Community

USCG small boat transfer of Haitian migrants to a nearby cutter.
Coast Guard Cutter Dependable’s small boat crew transfers people to the cutter from overloaded cabin cruiser, about 20 miles off Boca Raton, Florida, Oct. 12, 2022. The people were transferred to Bahamian authorities on Oct. 16, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

While the article centers on the experiences of the migrants and the actions of the Coast Guard, it also serves as a reflection for the broader maritime community. Ship captains, shipping companies, crew members, and maritime organizations are often the silent participants in these stories. The decisions they make, from rescuing migrants in distress to coordinating with authorities like the Coast Guard, are critical yet often go unnoticed.

ProPublica’s piece is not just a recounting of events but a moral call to DHS and the Biden Administration. It challenges the maritime community to consider their role in these humanitarian situations. The story of Tcherry and the sisters is a reminder of the human lives at stake and the importance of a compassionate and coordinated response to these crises.

ProPublica Article Link: When the Coast Guard Intercepts Unaccompanied Kids by Seth Freed Wessler

The New York Times Article Link: Migrant Children Are a Crisis for the U.S. Coast Guard