As U.S. Tightens Border with Mexico, Immigrants Risk the Ocean

Thursday, September 20, 2012
Marbilia Gabriel Mejia was killed when this boat overturned near the Torrey Pines State Beach.(photo: ICE)

Although more costly and perhaps more dangerous, sneaking into the United States by sea has become a popular alternative to crossing by land from Mexico for illegal immigrants.

The switch to ocean routes began after President George W. Bush signed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which called for beefing up physical barriers in the Southwest near the border.

Federal agents say apprehensions along the Pacific Ocean have tripled since 2008, with boat captures occurring from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. A few immigrants have even tried to swim from Baja to the California coastline.

According to an investigation by the Orange County Register, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) considered illegal immigration more of a nuisance than anything else until one immigrant from Guatemala, 18-year-old Marbilia Gabriel Mejia, died in January 2010 after the boat she was on capsized 50 yards from shore near San Diego’s Torrey Pines State Beach. Convinced that she was actually born in Florida and was legally a U.S. citizen, Mejia wanted to travel to Florida and track down her birth certificate.

Between October 2011 and July 2012, 558 people were immigrants and people smugglers apprehended along the Southern California coast.

Ocean journeys are said to cost more than land crossings, with immigrants paying up to $9,000. The voyages are dangerous, involving small boats not equipped for the task and passengers left without life jackets.

Coast Guard Executive Petty Officer David Grob, who patrols the California coast looking for boats with illegal immigrants, had done similar work off the Florida coast. Describing Haitians and Cubans he apprehended, he told the Cindy Carcamo of the Orange County Register, “When you look at someone in the eyes and you see the sadness and despair . . . the act of desperation coming over, it's just sad that in other countries people are willing to risk their lives to come to America and sometimes they make it and sometimes they don't.”

–David Wallechinsky, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

For Illegal Immigrants, Ocean Is the New Desert (by Cindy Carcamo, Orange County Register)

Sea Crew Tries To Stem Human-Smuggling Tide (by Cindy Carcamo, Orange County Register)

Immigration Part 1: Her Death Prompted Change (by Cindy Carcamo, Orange County Register)

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