How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A long, costly and dangerous trip for migrants smuggled by sea

Photo by lowjumpingfrog/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pangas, the fishing boats typically used by smugglers ferrying people up the coast from Baja California

The trend of undocumented immigrants being smuggled by sea up the California coast isn't entirely new, but the recent discovery of 15 people stranded on rugged Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Ventura County has brought the story farther north.

Where do these smuggling boats come from, and how do these operations work? Last year, before coming to work for KPCC, I went to a small Baja California fishing village north of Ensenada called Popotla to report on the maritime smuggling traffic coming out of there. It's a down-on-its-luck tourist town just south of Baja Studios, the oceanfront filming location where many of the scenes from “Titanic” were shot.

More recently, Popotla has become a preferred launching point for human smugglers ferrying people into Southern California. Human smugglers bring their charges down to the beach at night, loading them into small fishing vessels known as pangas. Popotla locals I spoke with knew about it, but looked the other way. Here's what one of them told me: