June 2, 2005 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Feds Drive Human Smuggling

It's in-season in the Florida Keys. Not for tourists or lobsters, but for human smuggling. Smuggling that makes big bucks for criminals, drains scarce Coast Guard assets from other vital maritime missions and risks the lives of desperate people trying to escape the tyranny of Castro's Cuba. And it's all encouraged by the U.S. government.

The Cuban Adjustment Act is well-intentioned. It recognizes an important fact: The regime in Cuba is despicable. It crushes individual liberty and suppresses economic freedom. Small wonder that every year thousands brave any danger to escape. With that in mind, the Adjustment Act ensures that any Cuban who legally or illegally touches American soil has a right to claim refugee status (with the attendant entitlements and benefits) and, after one year, can petition to live permanently in the United States.

Here's the problem. That promise guarantees human smugglers a lucrative market of customers -- so lucrative they can charge about $10,000 for the 90-mile trip to the U.S. They know that every refugee they successfully land on American shores will get a guaranteed welcome from Uncle Sam -- and that means money. Last year, 600 Cubans illegally entered in the United States through the Florida Keys. That's about $6 million going straight into the pockets of criminals.

The smugglers are smart, efficient and ruthless. It costs $250,000 for a boat that can outrun the fastest Coast Guard cutter. They can hire a recent client to make the run to Cuba in exchange for services rendered. Not a bad deal, since, if they get caught, the worst they'll be charged with is a misdemeanor. The boat's owner will then report the boat stolen. That way if the authorities stop the boat, it can be quickly reclaimed, then sent out again. The favorite target for the smugglers is the Dry Tortugas, a strip of nearly deserted islands in U.S. territory. Once a Cuban touches ground there or anyplace on American soil, he is permitted to remain in the United States.

And here's the irony: While the government encourages the smuggling with this legislation, it also insists that the Coast Guard do everything possible to stop the smuggling -- creating the conditions for a perfect storm at sea.

Smuggling runs are made in the dead of night, in overcrowded boats, without running lights, lifejackets or safety gear of any kind. When the Coast Guard spots the "go-fast" boats, a desperate race begins. The only way to stop the smugglers' boats is to shoot out their motors, no easy task on a pitch-black night on rolling seas, racing along at up to 55 miles per hour.

Knowing that the Coast Guard will make every effort to avoid injuring anyone, smugglers tell refugees to lay across the boat engines, an incredibly reckless act. If they're near shore, they will beach the craft at full speed. During a recent intercept, the smugglers did just that, and every one of the three-dozen refugees aboard suffered cuts and broken bones.

The smuggling fostered by the Cuban Adjustment Act not only fuels a growing criminal enterprise and needlessly risks the lives of legitimate refugees, but also significantly detracts from the ability of the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection to accomplish other missions.

For instance, the Joint Interagency Task Force South, which is responsible for detecting drug trafficking in the Caribbean, estimates that the United States has fewer than half the ships and two-thirds of the planes it needs to stop all the drug smugglers it detects through intelligence and monitoring. And short staffing there means short staffing for the port security and maritime missions that combat terrorism.

Finally, this growing problem is jeopardizing the lives of young Coast Guard personnel and Customs and Border agents. Interdictions at sea are as potentially risky for them as they are for the refugees.

Congress needs to amend the Cuban Adjustment Act in a way that doesn't reward "for-profit" human traffickers. For that matter, why treat Cuban refugees differently than those from other countries run by ruthless dictators? Either we stand for freedom or we don't.

At the same time, Congress has to start providing the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection the kinds of planes and aircraft they need and in the numbers they need. It makes little sense to encourage smugglers and give money away in port security grants that actually add little security, but leave the men and women who are responsible for keeping us safe without the resources they need to do the job right.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and co-author of " Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Liberty."

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire