In-Depth: Why human smuggling by boat has surged

Posted: 7:09 PM, May 20, 2021
Updated: 2021-05-30 19:23:03-04
Panga boat Point Loma

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- The capsized panga boat off La Jolla that left one migrant dead Thursday is the latest in a wave of maritime smuggling attempts that’s on pace to set a record.

Including the latest case, the U.S. Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector has now made 1,063 apprehensions of migrants attempting to cross by sea this fiscal year, which began October 2020.

The sector’s record is 1,273 apprehensions, set last fiscal year.

“We will hit a record this year for maritime apprehensions almost certainly,” said Dr. Ev Meade, the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

Smuggling by boat accounts for a small fraction of all illegal crossings, but experts say it highlights the growing desperation at the border at a time when the asylum process has been virtually closed off.

RELATED: 1 dead in suspected smuggling incident off La Jolla coast

A trip with a boat smuggler costs migrants about three times as much as a trip with a smuggler by land, Meade said.

This month, Customs and Border Protection reported that more than 178,000 immigrants were stopped at the southwest border in April. That’s a 21-year high in monthly apprehensions.

Listen to Derek's full conversation with Dr. Meade:

Experts say there are a mix of factors at play including pent-up demand, politics and the pandemic.

There are thousands of people still camping out just south of the border who were excluded by President Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy.

President Biden is beginning to unwind that policy, but experts say the situation on the ground hasn’t changed much because Biden has opted to keep in place another regulation called Title 42.

The CDC regulation first enacted in March 2020 under President Trump closes the border to non-essential travel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, it also grants the Border Patrol authority to immediately expel migrants they encounter without a hearing.

The result is that the asylum process has been virtually cut off. Of the more than 650,000 encounters with migrants since March 2020, only 2 percent were allowed to take the first step of the asylum process, according to a review by the Los Angeles Times. Less than 1 percent passed the initial screenings to have a shot at remaining in the country, just 120 people.

“Because the border is closed to people who would seek asylum, there’s a lot of desperation,” said immigrant rights activist Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee.

He said people who try to cross the border to claim asylum wind up expelled back to Mexico. And those who have waited in tent camps for years for asylum increasingly feel they have to find another way.

“It becomes a very frustrating and agonizing time for them,” he said. “Consequently it means people are seeking other means to cross into the US because of that desperation.”

RELATED: Numbers show an increase of maritime smuggling into U.S.

The other reason there’s a spike people trying to cross now has to do with the pandemic, said Meade.

In addition to an increase in unaccompanied children apprehended at the border, CBP data shows the sharpest rise is in the number of single adults.

“They're coming to work,” said Meade. “It's because the economies in their home country have been devastated by the pandemic and we've recovered faster than they have.”

U.S. restaurants and agriculture businesses have jobs they can’t fill. Migrants who have waited for asylum continue to languish in tent camps; those who present themselves to border agents have been quickly expelled.

So experts say people are trying another route: increasingly taking the dangerous one by sea.