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  • Sydnie Smith

San Diego Smuggling Tragedy: A Glimpse into the Incident and U.S. Immigration Policy

Surfers walk past one of two pangas authorities say overturned in the ocean off San Diego late Saturday in a suspected human smuggling incident. Three of the eight people who died were identified Tuesday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

On March 12, two smuggling boats carrying a group of migrants capsized off the coast of San Diego, killing eight. The tragedy is one of the deadliest maritime smuggling incidents within U.S. waters and follows a recent list of national smuggling catastrophes that have occurred off the coast and near the border. While the event appears isolated, it rests within a deeper labyrinth of migrant exploitation, failed domestic migration policies, and an increasingly complex immigration system.

San Diego and Recent Smuggling Tragedies

On the evening of March 12, under foggy conditions and turbulent waters, authorities were alerted after a Spanish-speaking woman called 911 to report that her boat had made it to shore while another boat carrying up to 15 passengers had capsized further off the coast. It is unknown how the boats capsized and how one traveled to land, but the night’s hazardous weather conditions may have veered them off course. Authorities also noted that the passengers traveled in pangas, small open-aired boats commonly used in human smuggling operations, and that seven of the victims are likely of Mexican nationality. The remaining passengers have not been found.

Migrants like those involved in San Diego’s tragedy often turn to human smuggling as an alternative to traditional immigration methods. Increased border security, restrictive immigration laws, and the complexities of applying for U.S. asylum can all lure migrants to smugglers, who illegally transport migrants into the country at high financial and human costs. Smugglers can charge $7,000 or more for trips across the border and force victims to pay additional fees for risky and inhumane transportation methods. Once in the smuggling network’s grip, migrants are subject to physical abuse, emotional harm, and other human rights violations yet often fail to report their condition to authorities out of fear of deportation.

Over the past few years, smuggling has amplified across U.S. waters and on land. Since 2021, over 23 people have died in maritime smuggling operations in Southern California alone, and over 600 migrants have been apprehended. Tragedies have also heightened near the border, as in 2022 alone, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking 2.4 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border. In June of the same year, 23 migrants suffocated to death in San Antonio after smugglers held them captive in a tractor-trailer, marking the deadliest smuggling tragedy to occur in U.S. history.

Connections to U.S. Immigration Policy

The increasing intensity of migrant encounters plays a role in recent transformations in U.S. immigration policies. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, then-president Trump issued Title 42, a colossal immigration law that prevents migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. on the basis of public health. The law has expelled 1.8 million from the country since its enactment and is a catalyst behind the rising number of encounters at the border, enabling migrants to reenter the country after their initial expulsion. Yet, despite the surge in encounters, the number of asylum seekers entering the country has dropped over the past four years.

In January, the Department of Homeland Security announced its plans to phase out Title 42, echoing the Biden Administration’s plans to reform Trump-era immigration policies and expand migration access. During his campaign, Biden pledged to take action against Trump’s attack on immigration, barring further funding for Trump’s border wall and raising the limit on refugee admissions. Biden also announced his goal to preserve Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, prioritizing matching over 600 existing unaccompanied migrant children with their families and facilitating an accelerated path to citizenship for children who enter the country.

Despite Biden’s open approach to reform, critics have warned that migration incidents at the border have continued to surge under Biden. Biden has also dismantled Trump’s policies with lukewarm dedication. Notably, Biden temporarily reinstated Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which bars migrants from entering the United States as they wait out asylum claims before the Supreme Court overturned it in June of 2022. In February, the Department of Homeland Security also announced plans to enact a policy that would prevent migrants from securing asylum status if they enter the country illegally, such as through smuggling operations. While the Biden Administration claims the ruling will encourage “lawful pathways to migration,” it has come under fire from immigration advocates who compare its provisions to those in Title 42.

The Immigration System’s Complexities

Despite recent administrations’ continued attempts to remold the immigration system, change has been transient. Since the Bush years, administrations have struggled to establish cohesive, consistent solutions to U.S. immigration policy, often enacting temporary solutions that fit their political agenda while facing setbacks in Congress. Modern administrations have also focused on intensifying border security instead of aiding migrants who have overstayed their visas, reuniting families, or catalyzing economic solutions for migrants seeking work in the country. With recent overhaul attempts stalling and disintegrating in today’s increasingly polarized Congress, comprehensive change remains unlikely.

The modern U.S. immigration system is incredibly complex and contingent upon an even more skewed political atmosphere. While incremental shifts in immigration policy have played out in recent years, they have only flip-flopped between different administrations as migration has peaked and the rate of human smuggling has swelled. There are no clear-cut solutions to tackling immigration reform and reducing migrant smuggling, yet the government can start by reorienting its focus toward the human side of immigration and the thousands of people most impacted by restrictive immigration policies. Like many other political problems, immigration is a human issue that requires humane answers, more diverse solutions, and a functional government.

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