Interdiction of vessels at sea to deter migration dates back to the early days of the Republic, when interdiction was used to interfere with the forced migration of slaves. Similarly, persons fleeing war, persecution, or economic and political upheaval have been arriving at American shores since at least 1793, when waves of white Refugees poured into U.S. ports fleeing a slave insurrection in Santo Domingo. That insurrection led to the establishment of Haiti in 1801. Those Refugees, however, were welcome on U.S. shores, particularly in the slave-owning South.
It was not until the 1980s, however, that the United States began to aggressively use interdiction in the open seas to prevent migration. The catalyst for the change in federal policy seems to have been the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 during which approximately 124,000 Cuban migrants entered the United States. Marielitos, as these Refugees came to be known, were detained, in some cases, indefinitely, in others, until a family or individual could be found to serve as a sponsor. The Mariel crisis and an influx of Haitians fleeing economic and political repression in Haiti led President Reagan to issue Executive Order 12324 on September 23, 1981, which ordered the Coast Guard to interdict vessels carrying undocumented aliens and return them to their point of origin. The order, thus, required interdiction, screening of migrants aboard vessels to determine whether they qualified as Refugees under American and international law, and return of those who did not.
Interdiction became a favored practice to deter undocumented migration, as federal constitutional and immigration law became more protective of migrants in the United States. Once on shore, statutory and constitutional protections provide some degree of process to undocumented immigrants; interdiction at sea allowed the government to deter migrants from entering the United States without having to extend any due process or statutory protections to those seeking refuge in the United States. Although President Reagan’s order preserved some degree of screening on board vessels, the policy changed in the wake of the overthrow of Haitian president Jean Aristide in 1991, when a new influx of Haitians were received on U.S. shores. In 1992, President Bush issued Executive Order 12807 directing the Coast Guard to interdict undocumented migrants at sea and repatriate them. President Bush’s order terminated screening of migrants to determine whether they were entitled to refugee status. This order was challenged and upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc.
Few Cuban migrants, however, were interdicted at sea until the 1990s; interdiction to deter migration was directed primarily at Haitians. Beginning in 1991, however, when Castro again signaled a willingness to allow Cubans to leave Cuba without interference from the Cuban government, the rate of Cuban Interdictions increased, peaking dramatically in 1994, when 37,191 Cubans were interdicted at sea. Most of these Cubans were detained in Guantanamo, as were their Haitian counterparts. After litigation and public criticism of the practice, most Guantanamo Cuban detainees were released to a sponsor in the United States or returned to Cuba pursuant to an agreement worked out between the Cuban and U.S. governments.
Today, the U.S. Coast Guard continues to use interdiction of undocumented migrants at sea to quickly return them to their country of origin and to avoid what the Coast Guard refers to as ‘‘the costly processes required if they successfully enter the U.S.’’ The largest group of migrants to be interdicted in fiscal year 2005 continue to be persons from the Caribbean, with the largest number to come from the Dominican Republic (3,520), followed by Cubans (2,532), and Haitians (1,850). Since 1982, a total of 57,800 Cubans have been interdicted at sea.
M. ISABEL MEDINA
References and Further Reading
- Hamm, Mark S. The Abandoned Ones: The Imprisonment and Uprising of the Mariel Boat People. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.
- Palmer, Capt. Gary W., USCG, Guarding the Coast: Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations at Sea, Connecticut Law Review 29 (1997): 1565–1615.
- Rivera, Mario A. Decision and Structure: U.S. Refugee Policy in the Mariel Crisis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991.
- Rosenberg, Lori D., International Association of Refugee Law Judges Conference: The Courts and Interception: The United States Interdiction Experience and Its Impact on Refugees and Refugees-and-the-convention-against-torture.html>Asylum Seekers, Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 17 (2003): 199.
- U.S. Coast Guard. ‘‘Alien Migrant Interdiction-Overview’’ https://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-o/g-opl/AMIO/AMIO.htm (2005).
- U.S. Coast Guard, ‘‘History of the U.S. Coast Guard in Illegal Immigration (1794–1971)’’ https://www.uscg.mil/ hq/g-o/g-opl/AMIO/amiohist.htm (2005).
Cases, Statutes, and Executive Orders Cited
- Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc., 509 U.S. 155 (1993)
- Cuban American Bar Association, Inc. v. Christopher, 43 F. 3d 1412 (11th Cir. 1995)
- Haitian Refugee Center, Inc. v. Christopher, 43 F. 3d 1431 (11th Cir. 1995)
- Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, Pub. L. No. 89-732, 80 Stat. 1161 (1966)
- Executive Order 12324, 46 Fed. Reg. 48,109 (1981)
- Executive Order 12807, 57 Fed. Reg. 23,133 (1992)
- Presidential Proclamation No. 4865, 46 Fed. Reg. 48,108 (1981)