Approximately 70 Haitian migrants on a sail freighter Jan. 6, 2019, approximately 26 miles north of Cap Haïtien, Haiti. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant (WMEC-617) crew assisted the Haitian Coast Guard with stopping the illegal migrant voyage after spotting the vessel. (Coast Guard photo)

DHS: COVID-19 Is Increasing the Possibility of a Maritime Mass Migration Event to U.S.

Instability, crashing economies and hunger could drive a mass migration by sea from countries such as Haiti and Cuba, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Threat Assessment.

That could end up straining the resources of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the report warned, as DHS agencies try to interdict migration flows and process migrants.

The 26-page Homeland Threat Assessment released last week is structured by the categories of cyber threats, naming Russia and China as the foreign actors posing the greatest risk; foreign influence activity, including disinformation campaigns targeting the election and COVID-19; threats to economic security, including destabilization from the pandemic and intellectual property theft; terrorist threats, including international groups, domestic movements, and lone actors; transnational criminal organizations, including drug cartels and human smuggling; illegal immigration as “flows within the Western Hemisphere have begun to increase after a short-term decline in response to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic and countries instituting border transit restrictions”; and natural disasters that “require the Department to readjust its priority focus, as resources continue to be reallocated to focus on responding to multiple natural disasters, while continuing to handle its traditional roles and responsibilities.”

COVID-19 “very likely” will have an impact on maritime migration “from both migrant origin and transit countries in the Caribbean” through next year, the assessment predicts.

“Weak socio-economic conditions in Cuba, political instability and food insecurity in Haiti, and the uncertainty of COVID-19 impacts in the region will increase the chances of a maritime mass migration event, although the overall risk remains low,” the report says.

Migrants who have recently been intercepted in their attempts to reach the United States have told officials that deteriorating conditions in their home countries have been so bad that they were compelled to make the journey despite the COVID-19 risk.

“Measures such as border closures, quarantines, and a reduction in legitimate vessel traffic can disrupt migrant flows; however, increased food insecurity and unemployment, reduced economic opportunities, a lack of medical infrastructure, and other second- and third-order effects in migrants’ home countries serve as likely push factors resulting in increased maritime migration to the United States,” the assessment continues.

“In the event of increased maritime migration, the U.S. Coast Guard and USCIS will need to increase interdiction and screening resources in the region. This could result in the reallocation of limited resources, impacting the ability to conduct other operations.”

In another area of the Coast Guard’s focus — drug smuggling — the DHS threat assessment said cartels based in Mexico pose the greatest risk to the homeland among threats posed by transnational criminal organizations, and “although COVID-19 has disrupted some cartel operations, their ability to move large quantities of illicit goods into and throughout the Homeland remains largely intact.”

On climate threats, the assessment broadly predicts that hurricanes “will continue to pose a hazard for the United States and its territories in the coming months” and severe weather events “have the potential to overwhelm the emergency response and recovery capabilities of the affected state(s) and may require the sustained deployment of Federal assets.”

“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nation continues to face unprecedented challenges as we respond to the compounding issues surrounding the 2020 hurricane season. Although the operating environment has changed the mission of helping people before, during, and after disasters remains the same,” the report states. “Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials, along with the private sector and non-governmental organizations, must continue to partner together to fulfill their respective missions and help disaster survivors.”

Disasters require DHS to “readjust its priority focus, as resources continue to be reallocated to focus on responding to multiple natural disasters, while continuing to handle its traditional roles and responsibilities.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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