Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Human smuggling by sea: A dangerous trend grows deadlier

UPDATED: Of the two deaths, one was related to a boat smuggling attempt, the other to an attempt to swim north around the border fence. It was originally reported that both were related to boat incidents.

Three months ago, the discovery of 15 migrants left stranded for days on remote Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles off Ventura, made national headlines. Now the trend of smuggling humans up the California coast has taken a darker turn, with two suspected migrants reported dead today - in two separate incidents.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Border Patrol reported that one of the people who died was found Tuesday night in Imperial Beach, not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. The second was a man found lying face down in a boat that washed ashore early this morning in Pacific Beach, a popular San Diego tourist beach. Several were injured in that incident; of the 15 people packing the boat, 11 needed emergency medical care.

Human smuggling by sea has become increasingly popular along the California coast in recent years, as border security has made crossing by land more difficult. But as has long been the case off the coast of southern Florida, where migrant drownings and disappearances are common, it's a very risky undertaking. There have already been several smuggling accidents off the California coast, including a capsizing last year near San Diego that killed two people.

Early last year, I reported on a Baja California fishing village known by authorities to be a launching point for human smugglers, who pack their passengers into small boats known as pangas at night and take off from the beach. I included this and other background on the smuggling boat trend in a post last July:

...the smuggling boats continue to take off from Popotla, as well as from other launch spots farther south, closer to Ensenada. One difference is that last year, most of the smuggling boats were still landing near San Diego, with a few landing in Orange County. Since then, as evidenced by the stranded migrants on Santa Cruz Island, some of these trips have been getting longer.

It’s a dangerous journey. The boats lack adequate safety equipment, are overcrowded, and travel farther out to sea with heavier loads than what they’re built to do. Some have capsized, like one did this week off Orange County. A capsizing last year near Torrey Pines State Beach near San Diego resulted in the deaths of two migrants.

For this, people pay as much as $5,000, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities. The idea is to evade tightened security on land, making the trip much costlier than a land trek. In spite of the cost, smuggling by sea has become increasingly popular, with U.S. officials logging a growing number arrests since they began noticing the trend about four years ago near the border.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the number of maritime smuggling incidents discovered has grown dramatically in the past two years, and those are the ones authorities know about. Between Oct. 1 of last year and August 31, 104 suspected smuggling boats were seized between San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, and 602 people arrested.

A similar number of boats - and even more people - were intercepted in fiscal year 2010, more than twice as during the previous year, when 49 boats were caught and 400 were arrested.

Most incidents have taken place off San Diego and Orange counties, but human and drug smuggling attempts have been discovered as far north as Malibu and the Channel Islands. ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that while there have been various drug smuggling arrests, the bulk of the boats intercepted were carrying human cargo.