Francis Wilkinson

Will Migration From Mexico Head Into Dangerous Seas?

Near a rugged peninsula off San Diego, a 40-foot cabin cruiser carrying undocumented migrants capsized and splintered on Sunday, leaving at least three dead. The accident was unquestionably tragic. The question is why such tragedies are so rare — and whether they will continue to be so.

For the better part of a decade, I have been expecting maritime travel to be the next big thing in smuggling humans into the US Southwest. After all, there were nearly three dozen migrants aboard that capsized boat. Even at a discounted smuggling rate of, say, $7,000 per head, a successful trip would be a very lucrative outing.

Yet every year proves me (mostly) wrong. Migration by sea from Mexico is so unusual that even experts in migration know little about it. “Historically, this has been much more common on the Florida coast than the California coast, so there is less information out there about California,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications and public affairs for the Migration Policy Institute, in an email.

Much of US history is a product of migration by sea. Not all of the trips ended in sanctuary on Ellis Island or in San Francisco. In 1849, the St. John, a ship of Irish migrants fleeing famine, left Galway and made it all the way across the Atlantic before being dashed on the rocks near Cohasset, Massachusetts. Of 143 on board, fewer than two dozen survived.

In the Mediterranean Sea, more than 600 migrants have lost their lives so far in 2021. Yet despite the contiguous Pacific coastline running from Mexico to California, and the proximity of Texas to Mexico across the Gulf of Mexico, migration to the US from Mexico by sea remains relatively rare.

“I too have wondered why we haven’t seen more situations like this,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. “I think this is because the Coast Guard has a much better operational view of the border in California than it does across the entire Gulf of Mexico on the other side of the country.”

Occasionally, Mexican smugglers deploy small wooden fishing vessels, pangas, which the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls efficient and cost effective. The boats “have superior handling, and are difficult to detect.” Jet skis have also been used to race to the Southern California shore. A desperate few have even braved a cold Pacific to swim. A 2011 United Nations report concluded that most migrants using sea routes into the US “do so without using the services of smugglers.”

As the crowded cabin cruiser off San Diego suggests, that may no longer be true. According to the New York Times, almost 6,700 people have been caught since late 2009 trying to enter Southern California by water. There were 1,273 such apprehensions in fiscal 2020, the Times reports, “the busiest maritime smuggling year on record.” Stricter enforcement on land probably plays a role in the increase, as does the closing of border crossings during the pandemic.

The business of smuggling humans is adaptive. As enforcement ratchets up to stop waves of migrants, the migrants develop new strategies and tactics to evade capture. The sea has thus far been a formidable barrier to illegal migration, and technology has given the US government the upper hand on water as on land.

The US has about 95,000 miles of coastline, and desperate people tend to be bold and inventive. The sea will always be a dangerous highway; it may yet become a more congested one.