Migrants Turn to the Sea to Enter US Illegally

Elliot Spagat, Google News, August 26, 2010

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This is a new frontier for illegal immigrants entering the United States–a roughly 400-square-mile ocean expanse that stretches from a bullring on the shores of Tijuana, Mexico, to suburban Los Angeles.

In growing numbers, migrants are gambling their lives at sea as land crossings become even more arduous and likely to end in arrest. Sea interdictions and arrests have spiked year-over-year for three years, as enforcement efforts ramp up to meet the challenge.

While only a small fraction of border arrests are at sea, authorities say, heightened enforcement on land, and a bigger fence, is making the offshore route more attractive.

The number of Border Patrol agents doubled to more than 20,000 since 2003, and President Barack Obama is dispatching the National Guard after clamor for a crackdown in the desert led to Arizona’s tough new immigration law.

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U.S. agents arrested 753 suspected illegal immigrants on Southern California shores and seas between October and Aug. 24, up from 400 the previous 12 months and 230 the year before. They spotted 85 watercraft since October, up from 49 during the previous 12 months and 33 the year before.

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U.S. authorities have stepped up sea patrols near the border, forcing pangas loaded with illegal immigrants and sometimes with marijuana farther offshore with landings farther north.

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Authorities believe smugglers put their passengers ashore and return to Mexico, when possible, to avoid losing their boats and leaving evidence behind. But they also quickly abandon the boats and run for it if they sense they’re about to be caught.

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At up to $5,000 a person–roughly twice the fee to cross illegally over land–one overnight trip can generate $100,000.

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In Mexico, the boats launch from a poor fishing village named Popotla, about 15 miles south of the border. It sits between Playa de Rosarito’s high-rise hotels and condos that cater to American tourists and expatriates and next to the studio where the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” was filmed.

Squatters live in about two dozen shanties crammed on a hillside. There is no electricity, paved road, sewage or garbage collection.

But it is easy to understand why smugglers are drawn to the village. It’s out of view from the highway only 200 yards away. Its crescent-shaped beach invites gentle waves and it is the only public boat launching spot on a 50-mile stretch south of the border.

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