US preps to halt post-earthquake migration of Haitians, just in case

US Coast Guard has 16 cutter ships near Haiti, in part to send Haitians the message 'don't try to flee.' There's been no sign of any post-earthquake exodus, but a preexisting US 'mass migration plan' is at the ready.

By , Staff writer

The US government is building a task force prepared to interdict and repatriate Haitians who try to flee their devastated island. So far, there are no indications of any mass migration, though a photo of a crowded Haitian ferry touched off concern in south Florida last month after the earthquake.

The US Coast Guard has 16 cutter ships in and around Haiti as part of an effort to patrol the area for smugglers and to send a message to Haitians: Don’t try to flee.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano set up a task force two days after the Jan. 12 earthquake to hedge against the possibility that Haitians would attempt to leave the island for the US, in search of food, water, and shelter. Over the past week or so, officials have been assembling the unit at a site in Miami and can mobilize it if needed, says Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, a spokesman for the US Coast Guard.

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The US announced last month that any Haitians who attempt to leave the island for the US without proper documentation would be repatriated. No such mass migration has occurred, nor, so far, are there indications that it might.

South Floridians had braced for such a possibility after a photograph surfaced last month showing Haitians crowded onto a ferry and possibly headed to the US. The image turned out to have caused false alarm, but it did point up the worry that with hundreds of thousands of Haitians affected by the quake, the US would have to prepare a plan.

In fact, there have been only two incidents since the earthquake in which migrants were intercepted: one in Nassau, Bahamas, where a boatload of 54 Haitian migrants were discovered, and another near the island of Turks and Caicos, where marine police intercepted a boat with about 122 Haitians. That number is about average for a normal period, and US officials themselves have not seen any migrations since the earthquake, according to O’Neil.

American ships have not sealed off Haiti to prevent a mass migration. But in what has been dubbed Operation Vigilant Sentry, US officials are monitoring Haitian waters carefully, with four Coast Guard cutters off the shore and another on the lookout for skiffs or ferries that could be taking Haitians the short distance to the Florida coast. Others are conducting routine monitoring of smuggling routes.

“We don’t want the bad guys to think we left the back door open because we are so focused on operations in Haiti,” O’Neil says. 

Should Haitians try to leave their island nation en masse, US officials could activate what’s called the “mass migration plan.” Put together by Homeland Security officials in 2004, it triggers legal authorities for local and federal agencies. Among other things, it allows the Defense Department to deploy ships to the region to hold hundreds of migrants at sea before they are repatriated.

The mass migration plan has never been implemented, but a task force has prepared for the possibility several times, O’Neil says, including during the transition in power in Cuba from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul in 2006. US officials also prepared for a migration from Haiti in 1994, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power, and about 1,000 Haitians were intercepted and repatriated.

Although there are no protections for undocumented Haitians who attempt to leave their island, those who are already in the US have received temporary protection for 18 months.

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