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Border Enforcement: Migrant Interdiction at Sea

As enforcement of the land border ratchets up, U.S. authorities face a surge in attempts to reach the California coast by boat

For two years now, the trend has held steady: In 2009, the number of arrests of smugglers attempting to travel by sea from northern Mexico to Southern California – the vast majority of whom were illegal migrants – nearly doubled, from 230 to 430.

In 2010, the average number of migrants encountered at sea every month doubled again, and in some cases tripled, said Lt. Aaron Kowalczk, a senior law enforcement duty officer in the Coast Guard’s 11th District.

In the 11th District – which includes the entire California coast – migrant smugglers have also changed tactics. In recent years, most would try to blend in with recreational boating activity, hugging the coastline and dropping off passengers just beyond the border, or maybe a little farther north, near the transportation corridors of San Diego. According to Kowalczk, recent voyages have gone far beyond the border, some as far as the Los Angeles area: “They’re going out and around the San Diego area, giving that a sort of wide berth, with the idea that if they go further out to sea and loop around, there will be less enforcement for them to run into in the Los Angeles area … We’ve had interdictions to shoreside and close to shore, but we’ve also had a few cases where we found people out further offshore who were either lost or ran into the Catalina Islands area.”

Given the vehicle of choice for migrant smugglers – the panga, a fiberglass or wood boat about 3 feet wide and 25 to 30 feet in length, powered by a single outboard motor – such voyages have become increasingly dangerous. In January 2010, two people drowned when their boat overturned in the surf at Torrey Pines State Beach, and in the past two years, there has been more than one case of people rescued farther out to sea, either sitting in a disabled panga or clinging to an overturned hull.

A panga boat used in a smuggling attempt of suspected undocumented migrants is moored to a pier in San Diego, Calif., May 8, 2010. The Coast Guard Cutter Edisto‘s crew, along with Customs and Border Protection and San Diego Harbor Police, worked together in a coordinated effort to disrupt the smuggling attempt as part of the San Diego Maritime Unified Command, an all-threats, multi-agency approach to maritime law enforcement in the San Diego and Orange County maritime region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Henry G. Dunphy

The reason for the recent surge in immigration by sea into California isn’t known for certain, but Kowalczk thinks it has to do with the immigration issue’s rise to political prominence, especially on the southwest border. Arizona’s state legislature passed tough immigration restrictions in April of 2010, and President Barack Obama’s pledge, in May of 2010, to send 1,200 National Guard troops there for border enforcement, have created the impression that the United States is cracking down. “There’s been a lot of emphasis and also a lot of publicity put on stepping up enforcement and trying to really secure our land border,” Kowalczk said, “so the perception is that maybe it’s getting more difficult and more dangerous to try and go across the land border, so it might be easier to try and go across by sea.”

In 2010, the average number of migrants encountered at sea every month doubled again, and in some cases tripled, said Lt. Aaron Kowalczk, a senior law enforcement duty officer in the Coast Guard’s 11th District.

In the last few months alone, several incidents of illegal migrants coming ashore in California were recorded. A few examples:

  • On April 14, Border Patrol agents on horseback arrested four passengers who were dropped on the shoreline near the San Onofre State Beach, just south of the Los Angeles metropolitan area; as the boat driver fled south, he and 18 others – all of them illegal immigrants – were intercepted.
  • In May, a panga with 24 passengers was intercepted 43 miles off the San Diego coast.
  • On July 6, 15 illegal immigrants, spotted by a routine Coast Guard helicopter patrol, were arrested after coming ashore in Encinitas, north of San Diego.
  • Since the fall of 2009, at least six boats – including two that were found abandoned – have landed on remote beaches on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, about 50 miles north of the border, near the Interstate 5 corridor. On July 16, 20 illegal immigrants were arrested at Camp Pendleton after their boat’s approach was spotted by Border Patrol agents. Two days later, 18 people were arrested on the base after apparently being dropped off by boat. The vessel was never found.
  • On Nov. 12, 2009, an abandoned panga was found at Laguna Beach, in the Los Angeles metro area, containing old clothes and fuel cans.

Stepping Up Enforcement

It may be, certainly, that the increased encounters between U.S. enforcement officers and illegal migrants in the waters off the California coast are due to increased U.S. presence there, and to improved coordination among the various border enforcement agencies. In San Diego, the Coast Guard coordinates patrols with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP, whose Marine Interdiction Units patrol the coastlines in 39-foot powerboats), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and local authorities. Of these agencies, of course, only the Coast Guard’s fleet has the capability to conduct patrols far offshore. “Once suspected illegal migrants are interdicted,” said Kowalczk, “we coordinate and hand them off to Customs and Border Protection for their processing, to actually make the determination whether they’re legal or illegal migrants.”

Suspected illegal immigrants wait to be interviewed by immigration authorities at March 19, 2009. The Coast Guard Cutter Haddock safely transported 21 passengers from an overcrowded 25-foot panga. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Henry G. Dunphy

On the open ocean, Kowalczk said, the signs are pretty clear. “When our boarding officers are out there and go on board these vessels, they ask for everyone’s IDs and the vessel registration. If people don’t have IDs or can’t explain themselves or their presence, that’s usually what will trigger the reaction to say: We need to talk to Customs and Border Protection about this vessel. The vast majority of our migrant cases, generally they’re very obvious, because they’re relatively small, open, unregistered boats with outboard motors and anywhere from 10 to 25 people on board – and just people and lifejackets, no fishing poles or anything, so it’s very obvious that they’re only doing one thing: moving people.”

The voyages generally leave from Northern Mexico after nightfall, and target the remote and rugged California coastline from the border north to the Los Angeles area. In past years, when migrant smugglers tended to try to blend in with recreational traffic, covert voyages peaked in the summer – but now they show no sign of slowing, even in winter. Local authorities, CBP, and the Coast Guard are all logging more hours on patrol to try to keep up, but the pace is taking its toll. “Our fleets are aging,” Kowalczk said. “Our ships are limited in the amount of time they can spend under way, because they have to spend time in port working on engines, generators, the whole nine yards. We’re operating at – or above, really – our full capacity, and so are all of our partners.”

While the condition of the 11th District’s patrol fleet is a major concern, the perils of a four- to seven-hour journey by sea in a rickety wooden boat, undertaken by people who, for the most part, don’t know how to swim, are the primary motivator for the nation’s border enforcement agents in the Pacific.

“We’re doing everything we can to combat illegal immigration by sea,” said Kowalczk, “but at the same time, the biggest concern is the safety of these people. You know, 25 people in an open 30-foot boat in the northern Pacific can be a dangerous thing.”

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2010-2011 Edition.