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3 People Dead After Boat Carrying Migrants Capsized Off The Coast Of San Diego

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Three people have died and 29 were rescued from rough surf after a 40-foot boat carrying migrants from Mexico capsized on the San Diego shoreline on Sunday. Here's San Diego Lifeguard Lieutenant Rick Romero describing the scene.

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RICK ROMERO: The boat had been, basically, broken apart. There were people in the water drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there. There was people onshore.

CORNISH: Immigration reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler of member station KPBS in San Diego joins us now.

Max, start with what we've learned about what's happened.

MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: So the boat crashed Sunday morning on the tide pools of Cabrillo National Monument, which is just a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a popular tourist destination here, so a lot of people were around on this overcast Sunday morning. And the water is still really cold at this time of year. It wasn't very warm out, and there was a heavy marine layer. But at least one person who was there as a tourist jumped into the water to help with the rescue. Unfortunately, by the time rescuers arrived, three people had already drowned. This morning, the Coast Guard officially ended its search operation.

CORNISH: We mentioned earlier that 29 people were rescued. What have you learned about who was on this boat, whether or not they were asylum-seekers?

RIVLIN-NADLER: They weren't likely asylum-seekers because asylum-seekers want to be apprehended so they can begin the asylum process. Right now Customs and Border Protection has yet to announce the nationalities of those on the boat Sunday. But when it comes to maritime human smuggling events like this, the vast majority are Mexican migrants. They're looking to evade detection and come and live and work in the U.S. or reunite with family. Just last week, a boat with 21 people was intercepted by CBP nearby the site of yesterday's crash, and everyone aboard that boat was a Mexican national. They weren't asylum-seekers.

CORNISH: How common is this, a maritime smuggling attempt?

RIVLIN-NADLER: Increasingly common - there's been a 92% increase year over year in maritime smuggling. And CBP had even announced on Friday - so right before this - that it was going to be ramping up efforts this weekend in an attempt to deter traffickers. Maritime smuggling efforts like this one have been increasing since the border wall in this area was reinforced and increased in size under the Trump administration. Here's Border Patrol agent Jeff Stephenson speaking after yesterday's accident.

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JEFF STEPHENSON: With the increase in border infrastructure and patrols on the land, smugglers look to, you know, any vulnerability they think there is. And they're looking for any method they can to move what they view as a commodity.

RIVLIN-NADLER: He's talking about humans as a commodity for smugglers. For instance, in early March, in nearby Imperial County, there was an SUV crash which resulted in the death of several migrants. The Department of Justice is already prosecuting the traffickers involved there, and it's possible - and they've already said they're looking into prosecuting traffickers involved in this as well, especially because there were deaths involved.

CORNISH: Finally, what are they saying about what's driving these attempts to enter the U.S. at this point?

RIVLIN-NADLER: The economic situation in Mexico, during the pandemic at least, has been extremely bad. There are a lot of Mexicans looking for work or a chance to reunite with family in the U.S. Again, we're just talking a matter of miles here between Tijuana and San Diego. During the pandemic, the U.S. has been immediately expelling all Mexican nationals who cross into the U.S. under this policy known as Title 42. But the people expelled often reattempt to enter the United States several times in different ways. With this current immigration system severely limited, people often grow desperate, so it's likely that these types of unlawful attempts, those of Mexican nationals looking for work during a desperate time in their country, will continue for a while longer.

CORNISH: That's Max Rivlin-Nadler of member station KPBS in San Diego.

Thank you.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCTEAU TWINS SONG, "LAZY CALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.