~ 720th Military Police Battalion Reunion Association History Project ~
Operation Sea Signal JTF-160
Cuba ~ Haiti
          Operation Sea Signal began in May 1994 when a U.S. policy decision to screen Haitian migrants for refugee status on board ships--rather than immediately returning them to Haiti caused a sudden, heavy outflow of Haitian migrants.

   To prevent the loss of life at sea--and uncontrolled, illegal immigration into the United States through Florida, Navy and Coast Guard vessels interdicted and rescued migrants.

   An initial attempt to screen and provide a safe haven for the migrants on board leased ships anchored off Kingston, Jamaica was quickly overwhelmed by the large numbers of migrants, resulting in a decision to temporarily shelter them ashore at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

   In August 1994, Fidel Castro changed his internal policy and allowed Cubans to leave the island. The immediate exodus of thousands of Cubans further complicated matters. It quickly became apparent that the routine capabilities of the United States to control immigration had been exceeded.

        The U.S. military provided the emergency capability to protect the country's borders from uncontrolled immigration and to provide humanitarian assistance to the migrants until they could be brought to the United States, resettled, or returned to their home countries. Both migrations were triggered by policy changes that created a perception of increased opportunity to reach the United States.

   Sea Signal was implemented on short notice in a dynamic international and domestic political environment. The interagency policy formulation process had to balance the protection of U.S. interests against the protection of foreign migrants' lives, weigh national responsibilities against international obligations, and use the resources and authorities of each agency in an appropriate, effective manner.

   Working under demanding conditions, Sea Signal participants helped save more than 60,000 Haitians and Cubans, shelter them temporarily, and eventually return them to their homes or bring them to the United States in a legal, controlled manner.

   Immigration matters are not the normal responsibility of the U.S. military. Routine administration of U.S. immigration policy is handled by the Department of State and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the Department of Justice. The interdiction of illegal migrants at sea is the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard. The military role during this extraordinary migration was to support the INS and the Coast Guard with a rapid response capability and resources .

   Previous Caribbean migration emergencies also required military support. In 1980, military support was needed during the Mariel boat lift. In 1991 and 1992, in the aftermath of the Haitian coup against Jean Bertrand Aristide, thousands of Haitian migrants were rescued at sea and sheltered in camps at Guantanamo. These experiences served as a foundation in the development of plans for future migrant support operations. When Sea Signal began in May 1994, some of these plans served as a basis for the early days of the operation.

   Sea Signal was an expensive operation. The Joint Staff estimated incremental military costs in fiscal years 1994 and 1995 to be approximately $373 million. A September 1995 GAO estimate of the costs of all agencies associated with the Cuban migration alone was approximately $497 million. Total costs from May 1994 until the operation terminated in February 1996, for all agencies of the U.S. Government and for both the Haitian and Cuban governments, easily exceeded a half billion dollars.

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