The following account comes from Lieutenant Commander Christopher O’Neil, chief of media relations at Coast Guard headquarters and currently assigned as Public Affairs Officer for Homeland Security Task Force Southeast (HSTFSE). As the task force continues its work supporting United States government Haiti relief operations, we will share LCDR O’Neil’s field notes with you as they come in. Here, he explains the role and purpose of the HSTFSE.
It’s been an interesting week.
While the powerful images and dramatic stories continued to pour from the earthquake- ravaged, island nation of Haiti, Homeland Security Task Force Southeast has been working to ensure that should a migration from Haiti happen, and there is currently no indication of that at this time, the U.S. Government is prepared to save lives at sea and effectively and compassionately enforce immigration policy.
Matters of migration draw considerable interest here in South Florida and with good reason given the region’s history.
So those of us working in the HSTFSE Joint Information Center (JIC) shouldn’t have been surprised by the flurry of media inquiries we received when a photo showing an overloaded Haitian ferry hit the newswires. The JIC, which consisted of just two people at the time, began to field inquiries and conducting interviews to explain the ferry was part of the normal maritime traffic for the island nation, that there were no indications of an exodus from the island and that there is a plan and there is an organization responsible for its execution.
By Friday afternoon much of the hype, misinformation and misperceptions about migration had been negated, affording the opportunity to take some time to explain what Homeland Security Task Force Southeast is and what it does.
In my last installment I mentioned that we were looking for a location for the JIC and a proper level of staffing. My good friends at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement SAC office in Miami offered their media briefing facility and enough space to house the JIC and I readily accepted. The JIC was initially formed in a virtual sense, with key public affairs officers linked together through e-mail, phone conferences and access to the HSTFSE website. As the week progressed and migration became a thread in the information environment, I decided to physically form the JIC. By Monday we should have a fairly robust representation of key agencies, giving us the ability to ensure we have the right communication products at the ready and to incorporate the social media lessons learned during the response to the earthquake.
HSTFSE was established in 2003 through a Secretary of Homeland Security order dated Jen 24, 2003 pursuant to Homeland Security Presidential Directive Five, which was issued in order to, “enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system. This management system is designed to cover the prevention, preparation, response, and recovery from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” Mass migration falls into this category and DHS is responsible for the interdiction, screening, repatriation and housing of migrants interdicted at sea. Because of the numerous agencies with a role in the government’s response to a mass migration it was imperative to develop a single plan to integrate all activities into a unified effort with clear lines of authority and responsibility.
The purpose of HSTFSE is to; (1) integrate all DHS component activities into a unified operation, (2) deter and prevent a mass migration of undocumented migrants to U.S. soil, and (3) in the event of a mass migration, provide for the safety of life at sea of those persons who are interdicted and subsequently repatriated. The mass migration plan developed, maintained, updated and exercised by the task force contains the guidance necessary to; (1) deter and dissuade attempts to enter the U.S. illegally from the sea, (2) rescue and interdiction at sea operations in response to a mass migration from a Caribbean nation, (3) land-based, law-enforcement operations, and (4) the processing, protection and detention or housing procedures for interdicted migrants.
Homeland Security Task Force Southeast is unique in that it is what is called a standing task force, meaning elements of the organization work together nearly daily to maintain a level of awareness that would facilitate the rapid activation of the mass migration plan. For example, a committee of the task force monitors a variety of sources of intelligence to look for indications mass migration may be starting. Equally unique is the fact that the task force does not occupy any real estate or building so one of the first hurdles to clear when activating the full organizational structure of the task force is to find facilities large enough and connected enough to house the operation.
Next installment – getting under one roof.