After Haitian Boat Incident, Critics Decry Ease of Getting Ashore

People from all sides of the political spectrum are wondering how, under a heightened level of homeland security, a boatload of 214 Haitian immigrants was able to meander up to the coast of Florida, run aground and swim ashore.

And, they ask, what if these illegal aliens weren't Haitians, but Al Qaeda, or other groups that want to do harm to the United States? If just a few got away, wouldn't they be able to wreak whatever havoc they have in mind from within this country?

"I think the U.S. should be a little frightened at the ease in which these Haitians ran aground and started running in the streets of Miami," said National Review contributor Joel Mowbray. "There's a real danger there and I'm not terribly comforted when I see 200 people able to breach our borders and come streaming into the highway.

Video: Haitian Refugees

"Don't you think that Al Qaeda operatives could go to Haiti first, get on a boat and come to America? It's not that hard."

Retired Border Patrol Agent Jim Dorcy echoed that concern, saying the Tuesday incident is proof that anyone can enter the country illegally if he tries hard enough. And often, when the illegal immigrants do get here, it's hard to find them and force them to leave.

Illegal immigrants from Haiti, however, are deported more often than others.

"I'm here to tell you there is no homeland security unless we do something about our immigration laws," said Dorcy, who is an adviser for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The immigrants jumped off their 50-foot wooden freighter Tuesday when it ran aground off Key Biscayne, 7 miles south of Miami.

The Coast Guard spotted the foreign vessel about 35 minutes before it ran aground and sent out two boats to meet it. Once passengers started jumping, the Coast Guard said its main concern was to make sure no one drowned. It threw a rope into the propeller to try to stop the vessel, but the captain — committed to getting to shore — stopped the propeller and started up again when the rope was pulled in .

When asked why the boat was able to come so close to shore without being detected, the Coast Guard said the freighter didn't stand out because it was similar to those that travel the shipping lanes off Miami.

The Coast Guard also said it recognized the boat as a Haitian smuggling vessel and never considered it a threat.

"This specific case does not worry me," said Coast Guard Captain James Stark.

The White House Office of Homeland Security told that the incident does not reflect the state of U.S. border security. A spokesman said the Coast Guard knew it was simply a boatload of malnourished individuals trying to enter the country and not a threat to our homeland security.

"The Coast Guard acted appropriately in their effort to save their lives," the spokesman said. "Had they ascertained that this was a threat, then the end result would have been different.

But immigration reform advocates are jumping on the incident as a prime example of how the United States has failed in its attempt to better seal the borders against illegal aliens since Sept. 11. A renewed call for better border control came when it was learned that Beltway Sniper suspect John Lee Malvo, 17, was in this country illegally and allowed to stay after run-ins with authorities.

"It has nothing to do with the color of their skin or where they are from," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a vocal advocate of immigration reform. "It has to do with the fact they're coming here illegally. And I don't care if they are coming from Canada illegally or Belgium or Haiti — that is the issue. Coming into this country illegally is an enormous problem for us and for these folks."

After Sept. 11, the Bush administration made promises to beef up security at the nation's borders. Canada and the United States signed a "Smart Border Declaration" that, in their words, was designed to keep trade flowing and maintain a "border open for business but closed to terrorists." The administration also said that it wanted to begin inspecting ships farther from the U.S. border.

The National Strategy for Homeland Security cites the increasing need for the U.S. to do a better job of scrutinizing who and what comes in to the country:

"The United States will seek to screen and verify the security of goods and identities of people before they can do harm to the international transportation system and well before they reach our shores or land border."

But critics say Tuesday's immigrant escapade shows not only Americans, but the world, that our security procedures are too lax.

"We still have yet to take a really serious look post-9/11 to … seal the borders to illegals," Mowbray said.

"There's a legal process in place and the only way we can keep track of who's coming to the country and who's not" is to follow procedure for illegal and legal immigrants. "It makes a mockery of what's supposed to be border security.

"It's not something that should make people sleep well tonight."