Surfers walk past one of two pangas that are believed to have been used to smuggle migrants and overturned in the ocean where at least eight people died.

Surfers walk past one of two pangas that are believed to have been used to smuggle migrants and overturned in the ocean where at least eight people died. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/TNS)

Late Saturday morning, a powerboat sped past surfers just offshore and onto a populated Carlsbad beach, where a dozen or so people jumped out of the vessel, ran across the sand and into an SUV waiting on a nearby road.

What appeared to be a migrant smuggling operation was captured in a dramatic cellphone video that quickly went viral.

The incident triggered responses from several elected officials — and two different points of view about what should be done to discourage increasingly common maritime trafficking operations.

On Monday, Republican county Supervisor Jim Desmond joined a handful of North County municipal leaders at a beachside news conference in Carlsbad where they called for harsher penalties on human smugglers and more resources for the Coast Guard and National Guard.

Some of them also blamed state policies providing shelters and legal representation for migrants, while restricting local law agencies from assisting in federal immigration enforcement.

That same day, Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, called on House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to bring a bipartisan bill to the House floor that would extend the ocean enforcement limit for the Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations.

Levin also noted he had supported legislation for more border agents, equipment and other resources and tougher restrictions on who can be granted asylum. Congressional Republicans in February killed the sweeping border proposal that was tied to foreign aid, at least in part at the behest of former President Donald Trump.

In his statement, Levin did not specifically refer to the Carlsbad boat beaching but mentioned “recent incidents of unidentified vessels landing onshore in our district...”

The juxtaposition of Levin and Desmond et al. suggested two sides with the same goal, while talking past each other.

Boats carrying migrants landing on California shores is not new, but the practice has increased in recent years in San Diego County, from Imperial Beach and Point Loma in the south to Oceanside in the north.

Maritime smuggling has grown significantly in Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties as well, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In March 2023, the Coast Guard said Southern California’s coastal region had seen a 771 percent spike in such incidents since 2017, though they remain a small portion of overall border-crossing attempts.

Dozens of migrant deaths at sea had been recorded over that period of time and continue, but officials say the true number is unknown. The boats used are often small pangas that typically are overloaded with people and poorly maintained. The boat beached in Carlsbad was more substantial than a panga, but packed nonetheless.

Various reasons are given for the increase in seafaring migration, with tougher land border enforcement and the difficulty in obtaining asylum among them.

Desmond focused on the maritime incidents, but reflected on the broader border migration trends.

“This surge in illegal border crossings, coupled with FBI Director Christopher Wray’s recent warning of terrorist threats, underscores the urgency of the situation,” he said in a statement Monday.

He also suggested California is more of a magnet than other border states because of free health care and legal defense afforded migrants.

“Even if law enforcement were able to respond swiftly to such incidents, state law prohibits them from coordinating with (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for deportation purposes,” Desmond added.

Immigration aside, state sanctuary laws do not stop local police from enforcing laws aimed at protecting public safety. More than one of those almost certainly was broken by those driving the high-speed boat onto the beach.

Desmond also mentioned that other states take “significant steps to secure their borders” and suggested California do the same. Texas is currently in a legal battle with the Biden administration over its immigration enforcement efforts, which by law are the province of the federal government.

“We urgently call upon the state of California and the federal government to take decisive action,” he said.

While urging more for resources for the National Guard and the Coast Guard, his statement made no mention of Customs and Border Protection — or the failed border enforcement bill.

Levin said that last year he spoke with members of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations about what would help secure coastal borders. Agents told him extending U.S. custom waters would bolster their mission to interdict drug and human trafficking at sea.

A bill pending in the House, H.R. 529 by Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., would double the U.S. customs waters from 12 to 24 nautical miles offshore.

“Last week, Speaker Johnson was unable to bring H.R. 529 to the House floor as originally planned because of chaos within the House Republican Conference,” Levin said.

“If Speaker Johnson and the Republican Party care about solving our immigration crisis, stopping the flow of illegal fentanyl, and securing our borders like they claim, then they must bring this bill to the floor immediately. We need bipartisan, pragmatic solutions. This is one of them.”

Johnson’s speakership may be hanging by a thread, with some GOP members angling to remove him. Broad border enforcement measures such as the one Republicans rejected earlier this year no longer seem on the table.

Though that proposal was heavily weighted toward Republican priorities, some GOP members said it wasn’t enough. Others said they were opposed because the bill could help President Joe Biden in the November election.

Global economics, politics and, more recently, climate change will continue to increase migration pressures at the United States’ doorstep.

Decades of stalemate over immigration in Washington have resulted in border chaos and reduced much debate over it to finger-pointing.

Clearly, there has to be a way to manage the influx to better protect U.S. borders and coastlines, and the people seeking to breach them.

In his remarks at the beach, but not included in his written release, Desmond said something the vast majority of people likely agree with.

“If we would treat people humanly, have an immigration system that worked and we enforce those laws, I think we’d be a much better country,” Desmond said, according to 10 News. “People could enter with dignity, with their head held high instead of coming in, dropping off on boats and have to run through our streets.”

The problem is not enough people can agree on how to do that.

©2024 The San Diego Union-Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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