New double-layer border wall that stretches from the Pacific coast into the mountains of Southern California is pushing human smugglers out to the sea as they hope to move people from Mexico to the U.S. by boat, according to federal authorities.
One incident in early May sparked national attention after a tiny boat carrying nearly 30 people crashed off the rocky coast of Point Loma, California, killing three people on board and leading to a massive rescue effort in which two dozen others were pulled to safety, including the smuggler. Days earlier, 21 illegal immigrants were found aboard a boat traveling north from Mexico.
Another 53 people were found in three maritime smuggling events one weekend in March.
It is maritime smuggling incidents such as these that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is seeing more of. The agency is on pace to surpass the 2020 record-high number of arrests of migrants.
“As [Customs and Border Protection] strengthens its border security on land, criminal organizations have resorted to more elaborate smuggling methods through the ocean for their illicit activities,” a San Diego-based spokesman wrote in an email to the Washington Examiner. “As a result, CBP has adapted and shifted resources to mitigate the threat in the maritime domain.”
From the start of the fiscal year 2021 in October 2020 through May 11, federal agents assigned to the coastline have arrested 992 people compared to 1,273 in the previous 12 months — making it the highest in a decade. Maritime smuggling incidents were last widely seen around 2010 when agents encountered nearly 870 people. That dropped to 241 arrests in 2016, but the number is again on the rise.
The ocean presents a unique set of challenges for CBP, the 60,000-person federal agency tasked with guarding all sides of the U.S. mainland, territories, and island states. Smugglers will take off in boats from Tijuana, a major city on the southwest border, and can make it to San Diego in seven to 15 minutes, depending on how much weight the boats are carrying. Once they have reached a deserted beach or the cliffs, boat operators order those on board to run ashore, where they can quickly blend in with the 3.3. million residents of San Diego County. Passengers have paid up to $15,000 per person to get smuggled into the country.
Border Patrol agents, as well as federal agents from CBP’s Air and Marine Operations arm that operate speed boats and aircraft, told the Washington Examiner in 2019 they have encountered people on jet skis, speed boats, swimmers, and paddle boats. CBP monitors stationary cameras on the shore and sensors located at various points on the shore near San Diego to flag suspicious vessels and track them.
The increased illegal activity in the water comes after years of rampant land border crossings. Illegal immigration in the region peaked in the 1990s when hundreds of people would run through vehicle crossings. Most people got away. Amid the crisis, the Clinton administration helped Border Patrol acquire metal scraps left over from the Vietnam War used for helicopters to land in rice field paddies. The rickety metal barrier was between 6 and 12 feet tall, and it was the agents’ only defense for the next two decades.
The metal scraps were welcomed by the sector’s agents, who were making more immigration arrests in the San Diego region than anywhere else across the border. But people began cutting through or climbing over the metal scraps.
During the end of the Obama administration and leading into the Trump administration, Congress funded projects to beef up border security in the stretch of land that runs from the ocean into the mountains. The new wall’s 18-mile run stretches from the coast into the mountains. The addition of lighting and all-weather roads, which make it possible for agents to drive along the border in any weather condition, allows them to patrol in these rural areas to detect and respond to illegal crossings and smuggling.
Agents in San Diego said this new wall and the technology that comes with it will deter most people, funneling them to less secure areas where agents are present. Those who attempt to climb over the wall are more likely to be detected thanks to new cameras, sensors, radar systems, and underground fiber-optic systems.
The U.S. is facing a historic surge of migrants along its southern border. More than 178,000 migrants were encountered at the border in April after attempting to cross at ports of entry or between the ports illegally.