Past to Present: Protecting our shores from undocumented migrants, drugs, and terrorism

As the Coast Guard has now crossed into our 226th year of proudly serving America, we will highlight our long history of ensuring national security throughout the entire month of August. This blog is part three of our history series which will be featured every Monday in August. Join the celebration on social media by using hashtags: #HappyBdayUSCG, #CheersUSCG and #CGhistory.

A boarding party from the Revenue Cutter Morris prepares to board the passenger vessel Benjamin Adams on 16 July 1861 about 200 miles east of New York. The Benjamin Adams was bound for New York from Liverpool and carried 650 Scottish and Irish immigrants. The Revenue Cutter Service was originally established to enforce U.S. tariff laws at sea and inspected incoming merchant vessels for compliance with those laws, as is illustrated here. Image courtesy of CG Historians Office.

A boarding party from the Revenue Cutter Morris prepares to board the passenger vessel Benjamin Adams on 16 July 1861 about 200 miles east of New York. The Benjamin Adams was bound for New York from Liverpool and carried 650 Scottish and Irish immigrants. The Revenue Cutter Service was originally established to enforce U.S. tariff laws at sea and inspected incoming merchant vessels for compliance with those laws, as is illustrated here. Image courtesy of CG Historians Office.

The Coast Guard shall enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable laws on,
under and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. 

– 14 United States Code 2 –

From the Coast Guard Historian’s Office

As the only federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in both U.S. waters and on the high seas, the Coast Guard’s enforcement of U.S. laws and treaties focuses on conducting multi-agency counter-drug operations, interdicting illegal migrants and contraband, protecting living marine resources, maritime homeland security and helping to stem weapons proliferation, among other critical tasks. Throughout its long history, the Coast Guard’s law enforcement responsibilities have seen all facets of the above.

The Beginning

Revenue Captain William Cooke seizes contraband gold landed from a French privateer, 1793. Image courtesy of CG Historians Office.

Revenue Captain William Cooke seizes contraband gold landed from a French privateer, 1793. Image courtesy of CG Historians Office.

Even though tariffs were the part of the reason for the War of Independence, the first Congress had to impose taxes because the young government’s need for money was urgent. Trade revenue had to be the lifeblood of the treasury if the new nation was to survive. As mentioned in the first post of this series, this is why the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, created a fleet of ten cutters in 1790 to enforce tariff laws. This early service known as the Revenue Marine (later the Revenue Cutter Service) represented the nation’s attempt to counter a serious smuggling problem that had tremendous financial impact on the nation’s ability to enforce its laws at sea.

Protecting commerce also meant suppressing piracy, a trade practiced well into the 19th Century, and cutters were also charged with preventing the introduction of new slaves from Africa. By the Civil War in 1861, cutters captured numerous slavers and freed almost 500 slaves. 

The Coast Guard Destroyer Tucker, flagship of the Coast Guard's New London Destroyer Force. The Navy transferred a number of its "mothballed" destroyers to the Coast Guard during the enforcement of Prohibition. Tucker was originally commissioned by the Navy in 1916, she was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1926 and served until 1933. Image courtesy of CG Historians Office.

The Coast Guard Destroyer Tucker, flagship of the Coast Guard’s New London Destroyer Force. The Navy transferred a number of its “mothballed” destroyers to the Coast Guard during the enforcement of Prohibition. Tucker was originally commissioned by the Navy in 1916, she was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1926 and served until 1933. Image courtesy of CG Historians Office.

Prohibition in the 1920s made the United States a “dry” nation and the Coast Guard cutters conducted the unpopular “Rum War at Sea.” During the early days of Prohibition, the Coast Guard was seriously handicapped by the lack of vessels, particularly fast ones. By 1924, “Rum Rows” not only graced New York’s doorsteps, but fleets of rum-running craft from broken-down fisherman to freighters of considerable tonnage, hovered off the coasts of the United States, more or less, permanently.

Intercepting contraband has been the Coast Guard’s most controversial commerce protection responsibility. The Coast Guard has continued this tradition and continues to enforce all U.S. maritime law, including laws against smuggling migrants and illegal drugs, as well as denying access to those who intent to harm the U.S.

Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations

Under U.S. and international law, a sovereign nation may control immigration. When successful, illegal immigration can potentially costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year in social services. In addition to relieving this financial burden on our citizens, the Coast Guard’s efforts help to support the use of legal migration systems. The Coast Guard enforces immigration law in the maritime environment by interdicting undocumented aliens before they aliens before they reach the waters of the United States. Often immigrants attempt to sail to the U.S. in severely overcrowded unseaworthy craft. Coast Guard maintains its humanitarian responsibility to prevent the loss of life at sea, since the majority of migrant vessels are dangerously overloaded, unseaworthy or otherwise unsafe.

A Haitian freighter interdicted by Coast Guard Cutter Seneca (WMEC 906) on Oct. 1, 1998 was stopped with 463 Haitians onboard. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO

A Haitian freighter interdicted by Coast Guard Cutter Seneca (WMEC 906) on Oct. 1, 1998 was stopped with 463 Haitians onboard. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO

In 1959, Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and within two years the Coast Guard established patrols to aid refugees and to enforce neutrality, interdicting the transportation of men and arms. This responsibility peaked in 1965 due to increased restrictions on immigration from Cuba and then abated until the Mariel Boatlift of 1980.

In April 1980, Castro declared the port of Mariel “open.”  Hundreds of small craft departed Miami and sailed to Mariel, where they loaded up with refugees, in most cases more than the craft was designed to carry safely, and then attempted to return to Miami. What followed became the largest Coast Guard operation ever undertaken in peacetime to that date and is a remarkable example of the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to a developing crisis quickly.

(July 8, 2010) A smallboat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma bring aboard Haitian migrants interdicted at sea from a sail freighter south of Acklins Island, Bahamas, Wednesday. Coast Guard crews rescue undocumented migrants who put their lives in danger by attempting to enter the U.S. illegally on grossly overloaded vessels. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

(July 8, 2010) A smallboat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma bring aboard Haitian migrants interdicted at sea from a sail freighter south of Acklins Island, Bahamas, Wednesday. Coast Guard crews rescue undocumented migrants who put their lives in danger by attempting to enter the U.S. illegally on grossly overloaded vessels. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Between 1991 and 1995, there was a dramatic increase in the number of undocumented migrants interdicted by the Coast Guard. During this period, over 120,000 migrants from 23 countries were interdicted. Specifically, in 1994, the Coast Guard was involved in its largest peacetime operation since the Vietnam war, responding to two mass migrations at the same time-first from Haiti, then from Cuba. Over 63,000 migrants were rescued and prevented from illegally entering the U.S.

Undocumented migrants continue to pose a threat to the U.S. today. While the primary threat comes from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the People’s Republic of China, and Cuba, the Coast Guard has interdicted migrants of various nationalities throughout the world.

Counter-narcotic Operations

Members of a U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment approach a suspected smuggling vessel aboard a Barracuda interceptor boat launched from HMCS Calgary approximately 100 miles southwest of San Diego, Oct. 1, 2014. Two suspects were taken into custody and an estimated 1,200 pounds of marijuana was seized. (U.S. Coast Guard photo.)

Members of a U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment approach a suspected smuggling vessel aboard a Barracuda interceptor boat launched from HMCS Calgary approximately 100 miles southwest of San Diego, Oct. 1, 2014. Two suspects were taken into custody and an estimated 1,200 pounds of marijuana was seized. (U.S. Coast Guard photo.)

The Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction. As such, we are a key player in combating the flow of illegal drugs to the United States. The Coast Guard’s mission is to reduce the supply of drugs from the source by denying smugglers the use of air and maritime routes in the Transit Zone, a six million square mile area, including the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific.

During the early 1970s, drug interception took on an increasing emphasis that continues today. From 1963 through 1979, illegal importation of narcotics grew rapidly. The Coast Guard seized 304 vessels, confiscated over $4 billion in contraband and made 1,959 arrests. In an effort to combat the problem, the Coast Guard expanded its interdiction efforts. On August 9, 1982, the Department of Defense approved the use of Coast Guard law enforcement detachments (LEDET) on board U.S. Navy vessels during peacetime. The teams conducted law enforcement boardings from Navy vessels for the first time in U.S.

The Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter (NSC), that started coming online in 2008, are outfitted with the newest technology and equipment. The NSCs replace the aging 378-foot high endurance cutters, which have been in service since the 1960s. The cutter’s range of 12,000 miles means that we can stop smugglers that much further from shore.

The Coast Guard Cutter Stratton crew is shown with cocaine bales seized from a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Coast Guard recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. (Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

The Coast Guard Cutter Stratton crew is shown with cocaine bales seized from a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Coast Guard recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. (Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

With the advances that the NSCs have made for the fleet, the Coast Guard set a record in 2015 by seizing or disrupting more than 190 metric tons of cocaine (more drugs than in the previous three years combined) and detained more than 700 smugglers for prosecution. Specifically, Coast Guard Cutter Stratton offloaded 32 metric tons of cocaine in San Diego in August 2015, while her sister ship Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, interdicted 22 metric tons of cocaine to include an eight metric-ton seizure – the largest ever from a self-propelled, semi-submersible in February 2016.

Maritime Homeland Security

The United States Coast Guard’s homeland security mission is not new to us. The Coast Guard has been responsible for the security of the ports and waterways of the United States during times of war since the enactment of the Espionage Act of 1917. After World War II, the Magnuson Act of 1950 assigned the Coast Guard an ongoing mission to safeguard U.S. ports, harbors, vessels, and waterfront facilities from accidents, sabotage, or other subversive acts.

NEW YORK - Petty Officer 3rd Class Bradley Haines, assigned to Coast Guard Station New York, stays ready at the M240 Machine Gun prior to the arrival of the President of the United States, July 30, 2012. Coast Guard Station New York provided waterfront security at the heliport where the President and his security team landed. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

NEW YORK – Petty Officer 3rd Class Bradley Haines, assigned to Coast Guard Station New York, stays ready at the M240 Machine Gun prior to the arrival of the President of the United States, July 30, 2012. Coast Guard Station New York provided waterfront security at the heliport where the President and his security team landed. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

The Coast Guard continues to play an integral role in maintaining the operations of our ports and waterways by providing a secure environment in which mariners and the American people can safely go about the business of living and working freely. It is more visible today than it was prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but it is just as important as it was when we first began protecting our national sovereignty. The Coast Guard maintains a clear vision and a keen sense of vigilance while keeping watch for threats to our security and those who would do us harm. This includes denying terrorists the use of the U.S. maritime domain to mount attacks on our territory, population, or critical infrastructure.

Our authorities were further strengthened with the passage of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. This designated Coast Guard Captains of the Port as the Federal Maritime Security Coordinators. The Coast Guard thus became the lead agency for coordinating all maritime security planning and operations in our ports and waterways. These activities encompass all efforts to prevent or respond to attacks.

These are but a few examples of the Coast Guard’s continuing effort to combat today’s flow of illegal immigrants, narcotics, contraband, and terrorism into the United States.

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