U.S. Coast Guard braces for post-pandemic wave of migrants

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

The Coast Guard is increasing its presence in the Caribbean in an attempt to forestall a potential COVID-19-inspired surge in illegal migration and human smuggling from the region, according to the admiral in charge of forces protecting the coastlines of the Florida peninsula, Georgia and South Carolina.

“Any time there’s a crisis in the southeast U.S. … there’s always the risk of increased migration,” said Rear Adm. Eric Jones, commander of the Coast Guard’s 7th District, which is headquartered in Miami. “Smugglers will look for an opportunity, whether it’s post-hurricane, post-earthquake or amidst political turmoil, to try and smuggle folks out of Haiti, out of the Dominican Republic, from the Bahamas or out of Cuba.”

Jones’s 3,600 active-duty Coast Guardsmen have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight since mid-March, when the pandemic forced the cruise ship industry to grind to a halt. Because so much of that industry is based in Miami, many cruise lines chose to send their ships to Florida, where 7th District personnel worked around the clock to facilitate the offloading of passengers and to arrange medical support and resupply for the crews that remained aboard. 

As of April 4, the Coast Guard had disembarked more than a quarter of a million cruise ship passengers, a spokesperson for the service told Yahoo News in a statement.

A lifeboat from the Costa cruise ship Magica is escorted by the U.S. Coast Guard on March 30 in Miami. (TNS via ZUMA Wire)

The 120 cruise ships that remain in U.S. waters, with about 82,400 crew members onboard, have now settled into a cycle of remaining offshore for a set number of days before coming in to get provisions, refuel and offload waste, according to Jones. “We’ve got to make sure that as ships come and go, we minimize the chance that those ships’ crews could infect port workers, harbor pilots and Coast Guard crews while at the same time we keep those ships moving,” he said.

Indeed, because almost half the cruise ships “have some sort of illness onboard,” the Coast Guard has facilitated the delivery of medical equipment and personnel to those liners, as well as medical evacuations or consultations ashore for “critically ill” crew members, Jones said.

With the cruise liner situation somewhat stable, Jones and his Coast Guardsmen are turning their attention south, to the waters of the Caribbean, where the full force of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has yet to strike. “Some of these Caribbean countries, they’re just in the opening chapters in the pandemic,” Jones said, adding that as COVID-19 sweeps through the island nations, the Coast Guard must be prepared to deal with both “opportunists who might believe we’re not watching” the southeast coastline and also people driven to flee those countries by potential breakdowns in their health care and political systems.

Jones stressed that while the Coast Guard was not seeing an increase in people-smuggling efforts, it was trying to preempt any such efforts by increasing its presence in Caribbean waters “so folks know that we’re down there so they don’t even attempt to take to the seas.” For desperate would-be émigrés, putting to sea “a boat chock-full of migrants” is “dangerous” enough normally but during a pandemic would represent an extraordinary risk, according to Jones. “What a chance for transmission of the disease among those migrants [that] would be,” he said.

The remains of the National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images)

In recent years, the devastation wrought by 2019’s Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas prompted several thousand Bahamians to flee to the United States. However, when a powerful earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, a firm stance from the administration of President Barack Obama dissuaded what might otherwise have been a large wave of immigrants from that country, according to Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“The administration was very stern and stiff in its messaging that they would be returned and that there was no relief in the U.S. for people trying to leave,” Mittelstadt said. That message was not just circulated to Haitian-American communities in the United States but “was also strongly sent back to Haiti and Haitian communities, and I think that the numbers that were anticipated were never seen,” she added.

However, any significant increase in migration efforts from Caribbean countries would place a strain on the 7th District’s limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), according to Jones.

“We are very closely watching PPE,” he said. “We are not short at this point, but as you can imagine, if we did have a serious uptick of migration — maritime — then that could create a challenge, so we’ve gone to great lengths to very carefully keep track of the PPE we have.”

To preserve its limited supply of N95 masks, the 7th District’s personnel are wearing “cloth face coverings” during their day-to-day activities, “because that has been determined to be good basic protection if you’re not in a high-risk situation,” Jones said. “If we think we’re going to be in close contact with someone, and there’s a reasonable chance of infection, then we go ahead and use the PPE.” 

So far, he added, the 7th District had not reached the point “where we’re having to reuse PPE.” 

Costa Favolosa cruise ship lifeboats arrive at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Miami Beach on March 26 with crew members showing COVID-19 symptoms. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)

The Coast Guard is fully aware of the perils inherent in its missions, according to Jones. “Nearly every Coast Guard mission involves interacting with other people, other mariners, and so the COVID risk exists everywhere,” he said. “We’re approaching all of our operations with the presumed possibility that someone we encounter out on the water could be infected.”

For that reason, following guidance from Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, Coast Guardsmen in the 7th District and elsewhere, Coast Guardsmen are changing how they operate on the water and on land, “not adjusting the amount of what we’re doing, typically, but perhaps adjusting how we’re doing it,” Jones said.

This wasn’t initially the case, according to another Coast Guard official. At first, he said, Coast Guardsmen didn’t know what approach to take in order to minimize exposure when presented with situations in which they would otherwise have boarded a vessel. “It was a nightmare,” the Coast Guard official said.

But now, according to Jones, whether confronted by a suspicious boat in the Caribbean, a commercial ship headed to Florida or a pleasure craft floating off Miami, the Coast Guard is communicating more with boat crews before deciding whether to board them than would usually be the case. 

Another Coast Guard official summed up the change in tactics this way: “We’re talking to more boats, but boarding less.”

If Coast Guardsmen decide they do need to board a ship and they have concerns over the health of those onboard, they will don PPE, according to Jones. 

The Coast Guard is “being very aggressive” in its approach to keep the number of cases in its ranks as low as possible, the Coast Guard official said.

So far, those efforts appear to have succeeded. As of April 29, the Coast Guard’s force of about 41,500 active-duty members, 6,000 reservists and 9,000 civilians had suffered 86 cases of COVID-19; 54 had recovered and none had died. There have been no concentrated outbreaks among ship crews or other units, according to a Coast Guard spokesman.

But the risks continue. “We’re still putting people in harm’s way,” said a Coast Guard official. “We’re still doing our job.”

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