Borders are moving at sea. We usually think of national borders as static, identifiable lines that mark territorial limits. However, contemporary borders are, in reality, highly mobile, diffused, and always proliferating. This proliferation comes in many forms, from digital information sharing to the offshore work of naval personnel. The mobility of borders is always tied to human mobility. People employed by national governments are often on the move in order to meet, intercept, process, or exclude migrants en route to their home countries. If we take a closer look at the way borders are policed at sea, it can help us to understand how moveable and changeable all national borders truly are.

Efforts by the United States to halt illicit migration by sea consist of a patchwork strategy of sea patrols in domestic and international waters, bilateral agreements, and diplomatic pressure on foreign governments to apprehend, detain, and repatriate migrants. This strategy can be traced back to a period of intense Caribbean migration to the US in the 1970s and 1980s. During the Mariel boatlift of 1980, approximately 125,000 Cubans entered the US; dire conditions in Haiti under Jean-Claude Duvalier also drove 25,000 Haitians to undertake risky ocean crossings to reach the southern US during this same year. These arrivals, occurring in the same decade as surging migration from Mexico and Central America, were viewed with increasing alarm by the US public.

At that time, under US immigration law, migrants intercepted at sea were not afforded the right to present their case before an immigration judge, as were most arriving migrants apprehended on land. Therefore, the US made interception at sea a priority. For example, in 1981, the Reagan administration came to an agreement with Haiti that allowed the US Coast Guard (USCG) to board and search Haitian crafts suspected of carrying undocumented migrants and then repatriate them to Haiti. USCG ships patrolling waters where Haitians were encountered carried US immigration officials who would screen migrants for asylum. Of the almost 23,000 Haitians apprehended at sea between 1981 and 1991, only eleven were “screened in” and transported to the US to apply for asylum.


President Bush called for the automatic repatriation of interdicted Haitians, without allowing for any type of screening process to determine whether they would be in danger upon returning to Haiti.


Throughout the 1990s, efforts intensified to avoid undocumented migrants reaching US soil, through the use of places outside US territory to conduct asylum screenings as well as the elimination of asylum screening for some migrants apprehended at sea. In the six months following a 1991 coup d’état in Haiti, over 34,000 Haitian boat people were interdicted at sea. The US set up facilities at its Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to screen interdicted Haitians, and when capacity was reached additional Haitians were held on USCG cutters.

In May of 1992, President Bush called for the automatic repatriation of interdicted Haitians, without allowing for any type of screening process to determine whether they would be in danger upon returning to Haiti. Regional refugee processing centers were established in Haiti, at which Haitians could supposedly make claims for asylum instead. Bush also declared the US exempt from its “non-refoulement” obligations under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, stating that these obligations did not apply to migrants apprehended outside US territory.

US policy regarding Cuban migration soon approximated this new Haiti policy. Alarmed by the interdiction of almost 40,000 Cubans in 1994, the Clinton administration ordered that the interdicted Cubans would no longer be brought to the US and instead would be brought to Guantanamo Bay and repatriated to Cuba, and could apply for asylum at a US outpost in Havana.

These changes led to the “wet foot/dry foot” practice regarding Cuban sea migration that exists today.* That is, if a Cuban manages to reach US land, then she is usually allowed to remain. If she does not arrive on shore, then she is returned to Cuba. This literal reading of wet-dry has the led the USCG, in cooperation with various US government agencies, to take extraordinary (and sometimes controversial) measures to prevent migrants from becoming “feet-dry.” For example, in 1999, the Coast Guard employed a water cannon and pepper spray to thwart six Cubans from reaching a Florida beach. In 2006, the USCG determined fifteen Cubans found on an old bridge in Key West that was no longer connected to land to be “feet-wet,” and repatriated them.

These policies regarding Haitian and Cuban interception have served as templates for the US approach to policing increasing migration by sea from additional countries within and far beyond the Caribbean over the last two decades. For instance, in 1993 the Chinese ship Golden Venture ran aground just off the coast of Long Island. The courts ruled that because the migrants did not make it to dry land, they were not entitled to an immigration hearing and could be deported. In 1999, Ecuador became a new source of migrants intercepted at sea by the US. To accommodate a sudden and sharp rise in demand, smugglers began to transport Ecuadorians by sea for the first leg of their journey, leaving from Ecuador’s coast to travel north to Guatemala or Mexico. Anxious to head off these would-be migrants as far from US borders as possible, the USCG worked to interdict Ecuadorians in the waters between North and South America and repatriate them.


Migrants apprehended at sea are essentially apprehended for a “crime” not yet committed; they have not yet transgressed the borders of  the state that is their destination.


These interceptions fall under a broad Department of Homeland Security strategy described as “pushing our borders out.” In 2004, a USCG operations legal chief in Washington, DC, stated to a reporter that the United States President has the right to take whatever actions necessary, wherever necessary, to protect US borders. Therefore, US ships will “go to the source of transnational crime and interdict it before it gets to the United States.” The USCG also works with numerous “international partners” in its migrant interdiction efforts, including the training of maritime law enforcement units of dozens of other countries in interdiction tactics. Today, the US has bilateral agreements with at least twenty-six countries in Central and South America which allow the USCG to board and pursue flagged vessels, patrol territorial waters with sea and aircraft, and investigate suspected smuggling activities. While these agreements frequently focus on counternarcotics work, migrant interdiction often occurs as a matter of course.

Destination states across the globe have come to view mobile, racialized human bodies as threatening. The US is one of many countries that has developed practices based on the concept of externalization. The US tries to prevent migrants from arriving on US soil in order to preclude access to the range of legal rights, social services, and economic possibilities that immigrants would obtain upon arrival. Authorities and policy-makers in destination states often watch and learn from each other, adapting other states’ “best practices.” This is true for the enforcement of land borders, as in the US’s adoption of Israeli strategies and technologies in the building of its US-Mexico border wall.

But it is perhaps maritime policing practices that most clearly show how changeable borders themselves are. Interception at sea allows for the temporal as well as the geographical stretching of borders. Borders become anticipatory and mobile, and they can enclose a vessel or a body. Many migrants apprehended at sea are essentially apprehended for a “crime” not yet committed; they have not yet transgressed the borders of the state that is their destination. It is the destination countries’ understanding of borders as flexible and provisional that allows them to punish migrants before they have actually made an undocumented entry.

The interception of migrants at sea illustrates how powerful states, such as the US, exercise their sovereignty in a geographically flexible fashion, pushing their own borders offshore while infringing on the territory of others. The borders of the US are hardened, even as they are stretched across the water into the sovereign territory of other states. The borders of less powerful states, in contrast, are made more permeable and less stable. This process is by no means accidental. It involves geopolitical exercises in power and resource provision or withdrawal. In some cases, the US has threatened to withhold aid from Latin American countries in order to pressure them to comply with American border interests.

Migrants are increasingly criminalized as their movements are interpreted as threats to US national security. Illicit migration is framed as a national security threat; thus migrants at sea are seen as a risk to the US, rather than at risk themselves of danger or harm. International covenants on human rights and refugees come to be seen as obstacles to be circumvented, rather than as guidelines that ensure timely humanitarian intervention. Ultimately, US security considerations override humanitarian ethics.

Alison Mountz is Professor of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Global Migration. She is affiliated with the International Migration Research Centre and cross-appointed between the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Nancy Hiemstra is Assistant Professor of Migration Studies in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University.

This piece is excerpted from their 2012 chapter “Spatial Strategies for Rebordering Human Migration at Sea” in A Companion to Border Studies, edited by Thomas M. Wilson and Hastings Donnan, with permission from Wiley-Blackwell Publishers. 

* On January 12, 2017, the Obama administration ended this policy.

Image from Flickr via Moody College of Communication


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