August 12, 2008
By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY
Immigration officials are beefing up patrols, buying more boats and preparing for a surge in illegal water crossings as immigrants and drug smugglers are likely to chart new routes into the USA through the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean.
Heavier enforcement on the U.S.-Mexican land border, in the form of staffing, fencing, cameras and other detection technology, will force smugglers and migrants to look for easier entry spots, says Lloyd Easterling, assistant chief of the Border Patrol.
There are about 17,000 Border Patrol agents nationwide, compared with 12,000 two years ago.
The Department of Homeland Security intends to complete 670 miles of fence by year's end.
"What we're doing … has been effective. Now they're having to go try different things," Easterling says.
In Southern California, the San Diego Marine Task Force seized 10 human- and drug-smuggling boats last year. With nearly two months to go in this fiscal year, there have been 22 boat seizures, more than double last year's total, says Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Diego.
"Clearly, San Diego has seen an upturn in smuggling by sea," says James Spero of ICE. "It's likely the next loophole could be the Gulf."
Easterling says officials are increasing water patrols and adding boats, jet skis and helicopters. He did not provide details, citing security.
Illegal immigrants found new paths after a crackdown at the Southern California border in 1994, says Doris Meissner, then commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.
As a result of that earlier crackdown, illegal crossers started taking more dangerous routes through remote deserts and mountains, she says. "It has consistently been the experience that strengthening in one place leads to new places becoming pressure points," she says.
Fernando Garcia of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso says smugglers, who charge thousands of dollars to guide people across, will charge more, and more migrants will die navigating dangerous waters.
Capt. Thomas Farris, commander of the Coast Guard's San Diego sector, says his team is installing more sensors on land and at sea to detect movement and is closely coordinating efforts with the Border Patrol.
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, says dozens of smugglers' boats have been captured or found abandoned in the past year.
"The increase in maritime people smuggling is already with us," he says. Extra border fortification "is only deflecting migrant traffic into other modes of entry."