Friday, October 31, 2014

Coast Guard fights on different front line in the immigration crisis

Coast Guard fights on different front line in the immigration crisis
By Javier De Diego, CNN
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)

Florida Straits are 90-mile-long stretch of open water between the
Florida Keys, Cuba
It's where many use makeshift rafts and boats in an attempt to reach America
This year, Coast Guard has seen the highest number of migrants in five years

Miami (CNN) -- "No queremos ir pa' Cuba!"
We don't want to go to Cuba.
Those words were repeatedly sung by a young man in his mid-20s, who had
just risked his life to escape the communist island. Instead, he found
himself, along with nine other Cuban men, lying on the deck of the U.S.
Coast Guard Cutter Margaret Norvell. The eyes of all 10 filled with
desperation and sadness. They knew they were going back.
On this night, the Norvell received the men from another cutter, less
than 10 miles off Key West, Florida. In the distance, they could see the
lights of the land of freedom they hoped to reach. But, like many before
them, they would be quickly processed and repatriated.
This is a different front line of the immigration crisis: the Florida
Straits, a 90-mile-long stretch of open water between the Florida Keys
and Cuba. On one side, the Bahamas. On the other, the Gulf of Mexico.
And, in between, an alarming increase in the number of people -- mostly
Cubans and Haitians -- using makeshift rafts and boats in an attempt to
reach America.
In fiscal year 2014, which ended September 30, the U.S. Coast Guard 7th
District, which patrols this area, saw the highest number of migrants in
five years, with 10,126 people found on land and sea. That's over 3,000
more than the previous year.
"Most of it is economic. They're looking for a better way of life," said
Lt. Kirk Fistick, commanding officer of the Norvell.
More attempts, new routes
For some of those caught and returned, it's just the latest chapter in
their long journey to freedom. CNN learned one of the Cuban men on the
Norvell was on his ninth attempt at crossing the Florida Straits. "There
are people that have done this dozens of times," said Fistick.
And, since 2012, the Coast Guard says it has seen human smugglers use
new routes to get migrants to America -- namely, by avoiding Florida
In Cuba's case, people on the island now have more freedom to visit
other countries. So, an increasing number of Cubans are legally flying
to smaller Caribbean islands near the U.S. Virgin Islands, then
smugglers are bringing them over to the tiny American territory. "That's
a very short maritime distance. And so, it's tough to combat that," said
Capt. Mark Fedor, the chief of response for the Coast Guard 7th District.
For Haitians, the new routes are longer and more dangerous. "There are
organized smugglers that will try to lure them from Haiti through the
Dominican Republic, and then into Puerto Rico. That never happened
really, before 2012. And now, that vector accounts for 40% of all the
Haitians leaving Haiti," said Fedor.
Doing more with less
When it comes to dealing with migrants, the Coast Guard is in a unique
position. Part of the agency's mission is humanitarian. But, unlike the
other military branches, the Coast Guard, which now resides within the
Department of Homeland Security, also has federal law enforcement
In that capacity, it also serves as the lead agency in charge of
stopping human and drug smugglers in open waters. And, along the Florida
Straits, it's not an easy task.
"There are organized smugglers here, especially human traffickers -- the
lowest of the low, when it comes to trafficking. It could be kids, women
caught up in the sex trade. They're moving people any way they can to
try to get them in the United States," Fedor said.
He said it can get frustrating to deal with these multiple missions,
with such limited resources. In a recent summary released online, the
Coast Guard's budget is expected to be about $6.7 billion for the 2015
fiscal year -- a fraction of what other military branches receive.
"We try to do the best we can to be creative, to be nimble and to try to
be one step ahead of these smugglers. But it's a challenge, because
they're thinking the same way. They're running a for-profit,
multimillion-dollar business, so they have a lot of incentive to get
their product to market, whether it's drugs or people."
'This is what we do'
Ronald Garcia, 33, is on the crew of the Norvell. The 13-year Coast
Guard veteran is also the son of Cuban immigrants, who came to the
United States in 1979. "They did everything they could to come and have
children in the United States, and provide better opportunities for us.
I'm able to live the American dream."
Garcia is one of two Cuban-Americans on the cutter. They both admit, at
times, it's hard to separate their jobs from their personal connections
to the plight of the migrants they find. "It's a very difficult thing to
deal with. Personally, it's just difficult for me to see the situation
they're in," said Garcia.
It's a reality that's not lost on his fellow crew members, including the
commanding officer, Fistick. "We empathize with them and it's tough on
the human spirit to do it. But, we're in the military. We follow orders.
This is what we do."

Source: Coast Guard fights immigration crisis at sea - -

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