It’s only a drill: Guantánamo rehearses Caribbean migrant crisis

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A report by Carol Rosenberg for The Miami Herald.

Hundreds of U.S. forces are rehearsing a migrant crisis this week at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a massive multimillion dollar drill that envisions the United States capturing huge numbers of people in the Caribbean bound for the United States — and how the military, State Department and Homeland Security would collaborate on handling it.

At the Southern Command, Army Col. Lisa Garcia said the military was contributing 400 troops and spending $2.5 million on its portion of the month-long exercise, to include transportation and airlift. It ends Friday.

She said Southcom’s “battle staff” is taking part in the exercise as well as its Public Affairs team. The Miami Herald asked to watch and report on the exercise and was declined. The U.S. military likewise declined to release photos of it.

It’s called Operation Integrated Advance and it “is dedicated to improving our integration with federal and local partners,” the colonel said.

The military has engaged in some sort of annual Guantánamo-related migrant exercise for at least a decade. The Department of Homeland Security participates every other year. This one, however, is the first since the Obama administration withdrew the “wet foot, dry foot” policy of granting legal entry status to visa-less Cubans who manage to arrive on U.S. soil.

Base residents and visitors have spotted the activity and asked whether the event was somehow related to a planned surge in deportations of undocumented migrants from the United States since President Donald Trump took office and hired retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, a former Southcom commander, as Secretary of Homeland Security.

A Department of Homeland statement called the exercise “routine.” But spokesmen would not say whether it additionally was training to put deportees there or limited only to war-gaming how to handle something like the humanitarian crisis that saw tent cities sprout across the base in the 1990s to temporarily hold up to 60,000 Cubans and Haitians across several waves.

The spokesmen similarly would not say whether the Trump administration has considered whether it can use the Homeland Security migrant facilities at the U.S. Navy base for people picked up on U.S. soil versus those collected by the Coast Guard or Navy at sea.

The exercise — which has had troops building a tent city and overwhelmed some guest housing facilities for weeks — runs through March 3. They are expected to pull up stakes and be gone by Sunday when the Pentagon dispatches an airlift of staff and observers for a series of war court hearings in three cases that will extend into April.

“This year’s exercise scenario focuses on a potential mass migration in the Caribbean,” a Homeland Security statement said Wednesday. “The primary objective is to protect the safety of life at sea and to deter mass migration using organic DHS forces reinforced by other federal, state, and local assets and capabilities.”

It also said: “As stated by Secretary Kelly previously, there will be no mass deportations.”

Most of the 400 troops were sent to the base from Southcom’s U.S. Army South subsidiary at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. About half of them are staying in warehouse-style housing, another quarter in tents erected on the base’s Leeward side for the occasion and the last 100 or more are sharing guest quarters, two to a room, Garcia said.

Another 50 civilians are also taking part, Garcia said by email.

A series of government offices contacted by the Herald were unable to account for the total tab of the project, which trains troops to detain, process, house and care for people interdicted at sea trying to reach the United States. It in the past it has envisioned command centers in Texas, Miami and Washington, D.C., for different functions.

The International Organization for Migration also has had a role in training for the repatriation of the migrants. But, “since most of the exercise is simulated, the cost of the exercise is much lower than if we actually deployed ships and aircraft as we would in the event of a mass migration,” Garcia said.

Last year, the base hospital took part in a similar drill documented in a U.S. Navy video.

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