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The Forgotten Border: What the Wall Could Mean for Maritime Migration

By: Heather Wilson

The U.S. maritime border spans more than 13,000 miles, approximately ten times longer than the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands of migrants cross this maritime border each year, primarily along the Florida, Puerto Rico, California, and Louisiana coasts, accounting for 15% of all DHS apprehensions in 2016 (down from 21% in 2015). Between 2012 and 2016, Federal and State partners interdicted 3,500+ people along the California coast near the Mexico border. Similarly, with only 50 miles between the Bahamas and Florida; the Bahamian and U.S. governments have acknowledged the Bahamas’ role in illegal migration across the Florida Straits and are working together to combat these networks. The nationalities of these maritime migrants included those from the Caribbean and South and Central America, but also those from farther away like Egypt, China, Czech Republic, and Ireland. These maritime migrants also include Special Interest Aliens – migrants coming from countries with known ties to terrorism, or of concern to national security – such as those from Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Trinidad and Tobago (of note, Trinidad and Tobago is a known terrorist hot spot and recruiting ground for ISIS). To further show the lack of concern for U.S. maritime borders, there are differing government reports as to the length of the border; showing anywhere from 13,000 to 95,000 miles. Of note, the U.S.-Mexico land border spans 1,900 miles. The amount of maritime migration is likely much larger than indicated in interdiction reports; Coast Guard testimony states they are able to respond to only 30% of believed migration.

Immigration by sea, often using human smugglers or rickety craft, is quite dangerous. Additionally, migration by sea is much harder to enforce. Smugglers are known to attempt to blend in with commercial traffic and quickly drop off their passengers on a given U.S. beach– especially in the busy Florida Straits or the Southern California coastline.

In addition to the humanitarian concerns regarding detention of migrants, building a wall, or changing the asylum process along the southwest border, policy makers must also consider the likely balloon effect on migration. For example, the United States’ announcement that it will end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian immigrants in the United States in April 2019 led to a surge of illegal immigration and refugee seekers along the Canadian border. The change to the Cuban Adjustment Act in 2016 (also known as “wet-foot dry-foot”) caused an initial surge in Cuban migration before dramatically decreasing (over 8,000 Cuban maritime crossings in 2016, to 2,500 in 2017 – per CBP and USCG reporting).

In 2010, after a ramp-up of border enforcement along the California/Mexico border, the U.S. Coast Guard reported the number of at-sea migrant interdictions quickly doubled. In 2018, Florida reported higher and higher numbers of non-Cuban/Haitian migrants interdicted offshore. (see Increase in non-Cuban maritime migration,3 Ecuadorians, 9 Ecuadorian; Top nationality of migrants interdicted off Florida is Ecuador, Bust of human smuggling ring; including migrants from Azerbaijan). Already, in Orange County, California Customs Border Patrol units are noting an increase in maritime smuggling, likely due to increased enforcement along the border. However, creation of a maritime fusion center that integrates local and federal law enforcement entities is leading to much greater interdiction success.

One could argue that the United States already has a maritime border in the form of the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard, a unique branch of the United States Armed Forces, has the authority to conduct maritime law enforcement “on the high seas and water subject to the jurisdiction of the United States” under 14 U.S.C. 89. One of the Coast Guard’s missions is alien migrant interdiction, a mission that quickly crosses over into another of the Coast Guard’s primary missions, search and rescue. 14 U.S.C. 89 makes the Coast Guard an ideal means through which to support our Department of Homeland Security border enforcement teams as it avoids the multitude of legal issues posed by use of the other branches of our Armed Forces inside the borders of our country. The Coast Guard already has the statutory authority to patrol along the Rio Grande River, one of the busiest crossing points along the south west border. Texas has previously asked Congress to increase the number of U.S. Coast Guard assets to support migrant interdiction in the Rio Grande. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard is already spread too thin. The service has an aging fleet and infrastructure, with many of the ships in service built in the 1980s or earlier.

We have yet to see what the change in asylum policy on the southwest border will have on maritime migration, but if previous increases in land border enforcement tell us anything, it is that the migrant population is determined to do whatever it takes to achieve a better life. A 13,000 mile border will be much more challenging to patrol, and possibly lead to larger loss of life. The United States will need to bolster their support, and funding, to the branch of the armed forces that can provide the greatest law enforcement, and humanitarian, benefit – the United States Coast Guard.

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