The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Legare returns to USCG Base Portsmouth on July 13, 2023, after a 69-day patrol in the Florida Straits.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Legare returns to USCG Base Portsmouth on July 13, 2023, after a 69-day patrol in the Florida Straits. (Billy Schuerman, The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Each day, dozens of men, women and children cram themselves onto a boat or a homemade raft, setting sail on a very slow and extremely dangerous journey across the Florida Straits. They try to reach U.S. soil before they sink or run out of food.

Hampton Roads is approximately 1,000 miles away from the Florida Straits and the Caribbean Sea, which serve as the primary maritime routes for mass migrations of people fleeing Haiti’s political instability and Cuba’s crumbling economy. But local Coast Guard members could not be closer to it as they spend months at sea, plucking the desperate out of the ocean and off over-burdened boats.

“We see these people so desperate — we come across these folks from Haiti who have likely paid smugglers for transportation, hoping to get to the United States. … They have nothing to lose. When they leave, I think they understand the risks of making this trip,” said Cmdr. Brooke Millard, commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Bear.

The U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Cutter Forces is based in Hampton Roads, deploying Coast Guard members throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Eastern Pacific oceans. There are nine 270-foot cutters homeported in Portsmouth and two 210-foot cutters at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach, with approximately 950 personnel total.

As the United States’ maritime law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard enforces immigration laws at sea, intercepting migrants attempting to enter the U.S. by way of the ocean. Those who survive long enough to be rescued by the Coast Guard are repatriated back to their countries of origin. In fiscal year 2022, more than 12,000 Haitian and Cuban migrants were intercepted and fiscal year 2023 is on pace to surpass that, with approximately 11,900 being interdicted since Oct. 1.

“It is a humanitarian mission,” Millard said. “We take a lot of pride in having them aboard, getting them safe and sound on the cutter. It gives us satisfaction to take them out of that scary situation, even though we know they probably will be going back and it might not be what they want or where they want to be. But at least we spared them a potential death at sea.”

Nonetheless, it is a difficult mission.

Once interdicted, migrants are housed in tents on the ship’s flight deck. It is not uncommon for 100 migrants — more people than there are crew on board — to be squeezed on a flight deck measuring 1,500 square feet, sometimes accompanied by animals. Each Coast Guard ship’s population of temporary migrants live, eat, sleep, defecate, and receive medical care in this one spot.

Meanwhile, the crew are tasked with providing round the clock security, necessary medical care and screening people, alongside an interpreter, to begin the repatriation process.

“It is really an all hands on deck evolution. There are folks from every department — cooks bringing up meals, our medical personnel doing what they do, and watch standers from engineering to the operations deck,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Lassiter, operations officer for the Bear.

Lassiter was a 22-year-old junior officer when his first sea tour aboard Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, homeported in Portsmouth, took him to the Florida Straits. The Portsmouth native had never seen anything like it.

“We talked about some of the missions, you know, in the classroom, but until you are able to get out and actually see for yourself — it is definitely eye-opening as a younger person,” said Lassiter, who is now 33.

The crew, Lassiter and Millard said, try to be as accommodating as the situation allows, offering books and cards to children, and talking with people.

“You see the humanity — our crews have conversations with the people they are watching and caring for. They learn about their lives, and there is compassion there. That human exchange is rewarding in itself,” Millard said.

In May, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) finalized a return to Title 8 immigration laws, deeming those who do not use lawful pathways to enter the U.S. ineligible for asylum and barring them from re-entry to the U.S. for five years. Title 8 replaced a COVID-era Title 42, which allowed U.S. immigration enforcement to turn away migrants instead of allowing them to seek asylum.

The return to Title 8 allows the U.S. to remove individuals who do not establish a reasonable fear of persecution or torture in the country of removal. Noncitizens can rebut this presumption based only on exceptionally compelling circumstances.

“The government decides if they should not go back to Haiti because they will probably get killed as a political prisoner if they go back. So occasionally, we have one or two folks who eventually get to become a U.S. citizen — it’s a very slim chance, like maybe 1% of 1%. But when that happens, our crew is so excited for that individual — everyone claps as they walk out,” Millard said.

Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans are encouraged to pursue legal pathways to the U.S. They can be paroled to the U.S. for two years if they have approved visa sponsorship requests filed by an American citizen or resident relatives. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will accept up to 30,000 of these applications per month.

Coast Guard Cutter Legare returned to Portsmouth this month following a 69-day patrol to the Florida Straits. During the patrol, the ship intercepted 116 migrants.

For ensigns Michael Pinto and Turner Linafelter, fresh from the Coast Guard Academy, it was their first operational mission. They joined the seasoned crew for the last three weeks of the patrol.

Pinto said maritime migration is “a hard sight to see.”

“But in the end, these vessels are not seaworthy and we are helping them in the long run, because most of them are not fit to sail and won’t make it. … It is an overwhelming sensation, diverting to help a vessel in distress, being there and being a light for them was an incredible feeling,” Pinto said.

But sometimes that light comes too late.

In late June, Coast Guard Cutter Legare came upon a vessel carrying 15 migrants from the Bahamas. One of the individuals was unconscious and unresponsive. Coast Guard crew members attempted CPR for around 30 minutes before the flight surgeon pronounced the person deceased.

The Coast Guard has recorded the deaths of 18 migrants since October. There were 66 deaths in fiscal year 2022, 5 in 2021, and 17 in 2020. The deaths are only recorded when a body found at sea is positively identified and returned to family members.

However, the United Nations Missing Migrants Project documented 321 deaths and disappearances of migrants in the Caribbean in 2022 — the highest number recorded since the project started in 2014, and almost double the 180 registered in 2021. Out of last year’s deaths, 66 were women, 64 men, and 28 children, while 163 remain unidentified. The United Nations uses interviews with family members of those missing to investigate the migrant voyages to determine if they survived and lost contact or were lost at sea.

Ensigns Pinto and Linafelter were aboard the Legare when it came upon the migrants from the Bahamas.

“Captain talked to us about what it means to be American, what a privilege it is. These people we are interdicting, they just want a better life,” Linafelter said.

©2023 The Virginian-Pilot.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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