Fighting Their Way In

Sarah Gustin, care coordinator at CareLink Central Arkansas Area Agency on Aging Inc., helps Lovell Davis, 65, left, sign up for the Medicare prescription drug program Monday, May 15, 2006, in North Little Rock, Ark.
AP Photo/Danny Johnston
With its officers and crews coming under attack by angry migrants more and more often, the U.S. Coast Guard is training recruits in how to defend themselves as they protect America's borders at sea.

CBS News Correspondent Jefrey Kofman reports it used to be that the biggest threat for the Coast Guard was the sea itself; violence just wasn't part of the job description.

But since the first violent encounter back in 1997, Coast Guard crews have been facing a rising tide of aggression. So far this year there have been more than 20 incidents.

One caught on camera on June 5 featured eight Cuban migrants in a homemade craft desperately trying to make their way to American shores and determined to dissuade anyone from stopping them.

"There was no way they were going to stop," recalled Petty Officer Danny Dupepe. "You could tell by the look in their eyes they weren't going to stop at no cost."

That was true even if it meant hurting themselves, or the coastguardsmen trying to intercept them. One of the migrants ate rat poison. Another threw gasoline on the officers, and when the Coast Guard crew pulled him from the migrants' boat into the Coast Guard vessel, he tried to ignite on crew member with a cigarette lighter.

While those officers escaped with minor injuries, the Coast Guard is now finding itself face-to-face with panicked migrants hurling rocks, even wielding knives.

"Migrants are incited to be violent. They're told that if they're violent it'll work, that they can get in if they resist," said Capt. Chris Carter of the Coast Guard's law enforcement division.

Illegal migrants used to come on their own. Carter says the violence has escalated now that smugglers are orchestrating their journeys.

"People can make as much money smuggling migrants as they can drugs and there are lower penalties if they are caught, so it's become a business," he said.

Then there are the drug smugglers, stealing through the open sea at night in speed boats loaded. When they are caught, they scramble to burn all the evidence at all cost.

Determined to discourage both drug and migrant smugglers, Coast Guard recruits are now not only schooled in search and rescue, but also in the fine arts of self-defense.

"We don't attack people. We merely defend ourselves," said Carter. "We're not trying to hurt anyone."

They learn to use weapons, and to threaten their use. They try not to use bullets, but under new regulations can inflict a searing burn with pepper spray.

But that training can only prepare—it cannot prevent dangerous encounters at sea from occurring and, Carter says, "there's obviously the chance that something will go wrong and that somebody will be killed in one of these situations."

The increasing violence at sea reflects a desperation among would-be-migrants seen elsewhere along the border as well.
In Texas, more than 700 illegal immigrants have died in the last three years trying to cross the Rio Grande River. More than a thousand migrants have been rescued along the river and trying to cross the brutally hot desert on the Mexico-Arizona border.

And as with the Coast Guard, the changing situation has forced the government to update its tactics: the Border Patrol has launched a "border safety initiative" to try to save lives along the dividing line.

But some critics blame aggressive border enforcement for the risky behavior by migrants, saying that as America seals the old routes across the border, people desperate to get here have been forced to take dangerous routes in.

However, the enticing prospect of making it here also prods today's migrants. Monday night the Border Patrol held 19 Cubans who were apparently left by smugglers on an island off Key West.

They were picked up by the Coast Guard. Since they reached U.S. soil, these 19 most likely will be allowed to stay.