With more focus on the southern border, US officials see a rise in migrants at sea
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: March 21, 2019
SAN DIEGO — The Trump administration's focus on the southern border has closed some gaps in immigration enforcement but expanded a challenging problem, law enforcement officials here said Wednesday: undocumented immigrants sneaking into California by sea.
The migrants enter in various ways, including on personal watercraft and small, open-top motorboats known as pangas that often arrive under cover of darkness, said Jeremy Thompson, Customs and Border Protection's director of marine operations in San Diego.
On Sunday, the 87-foot Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Petrel stopped a vessel with 12 migrants from Mexico aboard near California's southern maritime border. On Tuesday, a Customs and Border Protection team on a high-speed coastal interceptor vessel stopped another group, disabling a boat with gunfire after it failed to stop, and detaining eight more migrants, Thompson said.
Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott, who oversees CBP operations in San Diego, said that he expects smugglers to adjust their tactics as U.S. officials alter theirs, and he believes that the United States is taking away most of the "low-risk ways" to get into the country.
"We've been busy out here," Scott said. "Once the rhetoric started with the wall, it definitely picked up in the maritime."
The intercepts are carried out by both the Coast Guard and CBP, which has an Air and Marine Operations branch. They coordinate plans through a Joint Harbor Operations Center at Coast Guard Air Station San Diego, where personnel scan computer screens that display images from dozens of cameras, watching the coastline for watercraft that look out of place.
Across Southern California, 1,022 migrants were intercepted at sea in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Coast Guard officials have said. That was up from 213 in 2017 and 142 in 2016.
Capt. Joseph Buzzella, the Coast Guard's sector commander in San Diego, said that in the past year, 158 smuggling operations in the area have been stopped, leading to the arrest of more than 500 undocumented migrants, including 108 who are believed to have been organizing the smuggling efforts.
Those numbers are small compared with the 521,090 apprehensions CBP reported at the southern border in 2018. But the practice at sea is lucrative for those who facilitate it. Smugglers charge about $10,000 per person to get into the United States, and even more for Chinese migrants, who fly to Tijuana first.
"It's all about money," Scott said. "They're never going to stop coming."
Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, said during an interview Tuesday that the Coast Guard patrols the region constantly, and he sees the situation as manageable.
"Things kind of wax and wane out there," he said. "I would tell you that right now, we're paying attention, we're actively patrolling and it's part of the comprehensive border solution so it doesn't become an end-around run."