Four Dead, Two Dozen Injured in Suspected Maritime Migrant Smuggling Operation

Climbing body count from the border crisis

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 4, 2021

Four people were killed and two dozen injured on Sunday when a 40-foot cabin cruiser was “pummeled to pieces in the surf” off Cabrillo National Monument at San Diego's Point Loma in a suspected migrant smuggling operation on Sunday. The death toll from the current migrant crisis continues to climb, as migrants are attempting to evade Border Patrol apprehension.

This does not appear to have been a simple pleasure cruise. The boat was carrying approximately 30 individuals in what were described as “severely crowded conditions without adequate safety equipment”.

The first call for assistance went out at 10:00 AM on May 2, and Coast Guard, state, and local authorities responded to the scene. Reuters quoted Rick Romero, lifeguard lieutenant for San Diego Fire-Rescue, who stated: “When we arrived on the scene ... [t]here were people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out of the rip current.”

Survivors were plucked from the surf, and responders had to employ life-saving maneuvers on the beach. The nationalities of those aboard the vessel have not been released, but Border Patrol agent Jeff Stephenson opined: "Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel, used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally".

It sure sounds that way to me.

While many migrants (and in particular migrant families and unaccompanied alien children) are turning themselves into U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, expecting the Biden administration to release them into the United States in short order, single adults are still subject to quick expulsion under Trump-era CDC orders under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, issued in response to the pandemic.

In March, almost 102,000 migrants were expelled by Border Patrol under Title 42, as opposed to almost 66,300 who were processed under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), and presumably, in most cases, released.

Few of the migrants expelled wanted to be caught, and my colleague Todd Bensman has recently analyzed the number of “got-aways” — that is, migrants who have successfully evaded Border Patrol apprehension — in recent months.

Bensman noted that in the rugged, expansive (571 miles of border), and remote Big Bend Border Patrol Sector in West Texas, agents estimated that approximately 90 percent of migrants evaded detection.

This is not just a problem in Big Bend.

On April 30, Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke of the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector revealed that maritime illegal entries, such as the suspected one on Sunday, have been on the increase, and he prophetically warned that it was a perilous way to enter illegally:

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently. ... All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits.

In fact, according to CBP, just before midnight on April 28, an aircraft from the agency’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) branch spotted a small wooden panga-style boat 11 miles off of Point Loma. The vessel was crowded, and had no navigational lights on.

An AMO boat was dispatched, and interdicted the panga at 1:00 AM on April 29. Agents apprehended 21 adults on board — 15 males and six females — all Mexican nationals without legal immigration status, who were turned over to the Border Patrol for processing. Authorities have charged two of those on board with smuggling.

The outcome could have been a whole lot worse for those aboard, as Sunday’s incident suggests.

San Diego sector recorded 309 maritime smuggling attempts in FY 2020, and by last Thursday, there have already been 157 there in FY 2021.

Those attempted illegal entries — both across the land border and at sea — have resulted in a large number of search-and-rescue efforts for Border Patrol and AMO. Through March, CBP recorded 4,680 Border Patrol search and rescue efforts at the Southwest border in FY 2021.

With six months to go in the fiscal year as of that reporting (April’s numbers have not been released yet), Border Patrol searches and rescues are on track to eclipse the numbers for FY 2020 (5,071) and FY 2019 (4,920). I have a feeling that the April total will be a whopper.

AMO’s search and rescue numbers in FY 2021 (120) are running at a higher annual rate than in FY 2020 (184), but behind the total in FY 2019 (377). Of course, there are still five months to go in this fiscal year, and April’s totals have not been released, but the numbers have plainly increased in just a few days.

The crisis at the border is not just measured in terms of apprehensions, expulsions, and releases. It has a body count, too, and that body count is increasing.