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U.S. Stretches Border 1,000 Miles To Block "Illegal Aliens"

by Michael Flynn

Asked to waive Miranda rights on open sea
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- In a case that highlights the growing U.S. effort to detain migrants long before they set eyes on this country's borders, five crew members of an Ecuadorian fishing vessel called the San Jacinto pled guilty in a federal court here this month to conspiracy to encourage illegal immigration.

On May 15, 2002, while trolling international waters off the coast of Guatemala, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter detained what appeared to be a fishing boat heading north towards Mexico. But a few things about the ship did not seem right. First, it bore no flag or markings designating its origin.

On closer examination the Coast Guard found some 270 undocumented passengers from Ecuador hidden in unventilated cargo holds in the bowels of the ship.

According to court documents filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, "There were no tickets for the voyage, and no passengers appeared to have suitcases; no one (meaning crew members) checked whether passengers possessed proper immigration documents."

"It was common knowledge among the passengers that most, if not all, passengers had paid smugglers for passage to the United States, with the route for Guatemala to the United States, through Mexico, occurring over land."

Working with the Mexican Navy, the Coast Guard towed the vessel to Puerto Madre, Mexico, where the passengers were interviewed by U.S. immigration officials and the crewmembers identified.

Although the crew was in the custody of Mexican authorities, officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) advised them of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

And despite the fact that the crewmembers had little or no understanding of U.S. laws, the officials asked them to waive their Miranda rights (which, among other things, stipulate that a person has a right to refuse to answer questions and to request an attorney), which they subsequently did.

According to the court documents, INS officials then contacted the Justice Department about the case, and the decision was made to file an arrest warrant against the crewmembers. "After being expelled from Mexico," relates the U.S. attorney's office, "the defendants were arrested in Houston, Texas, where their flight landed, and taken into custody by federal authorities."

No explanation is given about how the crew ended up on that flight or whether they had any idea they were heading to this country.

"Their understanding was that they were going to Ecuador," said Elita Amato, an attorney representing the crewmembers, in an interview.

On July 17, after waiting more than a year for their case to come to trial, the crewmembers surprised their attorneys when they said that they had decided to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge. They now face up to three years in prison.

Lory Rosenberg, a former member of the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals who is now with the non-profit National Legal Aid and Defender Association, says that the case raises a number of intriguing questions.

Did the crewmembers give express permission to be deported to a third country? Once on the plane were they handcuffed and put in the custody of U.S. officials? If so, under what authority? And, even if they were read their rights, what does it mean to tell someone they have a right to an attorney when that attorney is located 1,000 miles away in a foreign country?

When asked these questions, Barbara Kittay, an assistant U.S. attorney, told IPS that she "could not comment" on issues that were "not in the public record." The crewmembers, she said, had "committed a crime against the United States", they were read their rights, and they waived them. It is moot where the alleged crime took place -- inside the country or in international waters, she added.

But for Rosenberg, the case raises an even more disturbing question about U.S. treatment of potential asylum seekers: by detaining undocumented migrants before they reach the United States, is Washington ignoring its commitments under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to protect those fleeing persecution?

"It seems that the United States is primarily interested in punishment and is disregarding its obligations to provide protection to legitimate asylum seekers," she said in an interview.

Asked whether the undocumented passengers on the San Jacinto -- all of whom were apparently repatriated to Ecuador -- were granted asylum hearings, Kittay said that she could not comment on that issue because it had no bearing on the case of the crewmembers.

What is clear, however, is that the San Jacinto is not an isolated incident. In a report published last year, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) argued that U.S. efforts to push its migrant detention efforts into neighboring countries had effectively turned the U.S. border into an "elastic frontier".

These efforts, said CLINIC, "cast doubt on U.S. compliance with international law, which precludes the return of persons to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened or they would be tortured".

According to CLINIC, in 2000 alone the Coast Guard detained more than 4,000 foreign-born nationals on the high seas, including 1,394 Haitians, 781 Dominicans, 928 Cubans and 513 Ecuadorians. All were repatriated without being given asylum hearings.

In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that Coast Guard efforts to detain and repatriate foreign-born nationals did not violate the Refugee Convention because the migrants never reached U.S. shores.

But according to CLINIC, the ruling did not cover another important treaty to which the United States is a member -- the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which precludes return "regardless of whether the person is physically present in the United States."

CLINIC highlighted another key issue -- the lack of coverage of these practices in the U.S. media: "The expansion of the enforcement efforts beyond the nation's territorial limits has been even more pronounced (than its efforts along the border), albeit beyond the public's eye."

The case of the San Jacinto has been no different. The crewmembers' sentencing hearing is scheduled for later this fall. The question is, will anyone from the U.S. media or the concerned public notice?

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Albion Monitor July 31, 2003 (

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