Obscure Maritime Laws Used to Snare Undocumented Immigrants

A group of 15 relatives and friends boating across Long Island Sound during a weekend family reunion quickly grasped the realities of little-known maritime law enforcement. The family's yacht was boarded, guests were interrogated, and in the end, local and federal law enforcement officials took two people into custody for immigration violations.

The New York Times spoke with Gaea Rich, part of the family group on board her uncle's foreign-flagged yacht over the Fourth of July holiday. "We couldn't believe it," said Rich, 28, whose Irish boyfriend was one of the pair of people seized. "Everyone was just shocked." A Guatemalan caterer hired for the day trip was also taken into custody and turned over to immigration officials for deportation. Both men taken into custody were unable to provide officials with green cards, work visas or other proof they were in the U.S. legally.

According to a spokesperson for United States Customs and Border Protection, immigration officials are permitted by law to board foreign-flagged vessels at any time. The Coast Guard, which also participated in the stop of the Rich yacht, can board any vessel in American waters at any time.

In addition, the Coast Guard is conducting Operation Small Fry, a program in conjunction with federal and local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration and maritime law. Together they make about 750 stops of vessels per year.

Officials said enforcement efforts have increased since 9-11. They stated that in recent years, Coast Guard personnel on Staten Island - responsible for patrolling New York Harbor, the western portion of Long Island Sound and the southern portion of the Hudson River - have increased their inspections of small, foreign-flagged boats.

Several managers of New York area marinas said owners and operators of foreign-flagged vessels complained about repeated boardings by the Coast Guard and customs personnel.

If you or a loved one face deportation or detainment over immigration issues, contact an experienced immigration lawyer and citizenship attorney to discuss your legal options.

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