Risking Everything to Come to America on the Open Ocean

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The fiberglass skiff Lazora idled on the darkened Pacific Ocean a few miles south of American waters. It was roughly 25 feet long and seven feet wide, unlit, overloaded and offering no shelter from the elements. Twenty people were crammed aboard. Most were seated on narrow benches. A few huddled on the vomit-splattered deck. Some had opened slits in plastic garbage bags and pushed heads and arms through, flimsy protection against the damp October chill. Few life jackets were visible. At the boat’s stern, two Mexican men tended a 200-horsepower outboard engine and 10 plastic barrels of fuel. They were in the final hour of ferrying a load of undocumented migrants toward American land, in waters nearly three-quarters of a mile deep: human smugglers, running a boat through a seam where black sea met black sky.

The boat operators, one a former commercial fisherman and the other his cousin, had picked up their passengers earlier in the night on a beach on Mexico’s coastline and worked their way offshore and northward. Shortly after midnight they arrived at a de facto loitering zone for maritime smugglers preparing for runs into the United States, a patch of ocean just south of the American line where Mexican law-enforcement vessels rarely patrol and American vessels have no authority. Now their uneventful ride was giving way to tension and fear.

The lights of San Diego and Tijuana twinkled in the eastern distance. The Lazora’s destination was the steep outcropping of Point Loma, beside the entrance to San Diego’s harbor, where the men running the skiff had been told a pickup crew would guide them to the beach with a flashing light. From there the migrants were expected to follow a Southern California human-smuggling routine — a leap into the surf, a scramble ashore, a rush to waiting vehicles, a drive to safe houses where they would be held until the balance of their smuggling fees had been paid. And then, if it all worked, if no one drowned, if the ever-shifting network of federal, state and municipal law-enforcement agencies did not catch them, they would embark on a furtive form of opportunity in the United States.

They came from multiple Mexican states and matched familiar profiles of undocumented migrants seeking to cross. One was a 56-year-old widower from Colima who supported three children and two grandchildren. Another was a young man from Nayarit who cared for a mother sick with cancer. A teenage minor was among them, as was a man from Oaxaca who turned 18 two weeks earlier and wanted a job. A 41-year-old man from Michoacan had boarded the skiff to seek reunion with his daughter, who preceded him to the United States with hopes of studying in an American school.

Huddled in the bow was a man who fit a less familiar but not uncommon profile — a Mexican citizen from Guanajuato who for more than two decades had lived and worked in the United States. (To protect him and his family, he is referred to here as J., one of his initials.) Under the law, J. was not just attempting a single illegal entry. He was a recidivist, a serial border-tester. He had a wife with whom he had been raising five American children near a Western American city, where he owned a landscaping and gardening business until he was seized and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2018, amid the Trump administration’s wider crackdown on immigration and undocumented residents in the United States. For two years he had been living an odyssey of his times. Unwillingly estranged from his family, he was trying to return to the single-story duplex with a swimming pool in the back where his wife and children were waiting, including a stepdaughter he had encouraged to attend college and four biological American children of his own. J. was journeying home.

For almost three hours the Lazora had been milling near the international boundary, driving this way then that, its crew seemingly unsure when to commit. It was almost as if they knew that a Customs and Border Protection airplane with an infrared sensor had been circling overhead, and that the sensor operator, seated behind the pilots, was watching them on a dimly illuminated black-and-white display. It was 2:45 a.m. The law-enforcement aircraft was low on fuel. It would soon return to its airfield, potentially leaving two 41-foot C.B.P. Coastal Interceptor Vessels, each crewed by interdiction agents, without a plane to scan the expansive ocean surface and guide them to their quarry. “Targets,” they called boats like the Lazora.

The enforcement vessels were now drifting quietly inside American waters about 12 miles away, lights out, engines warm and murmuring, ready.

The men at the skiff’s stern decided. The former fisherman spun the throttle, accelerating past 20 knots.

The C.B.P. intercepting the Lazora, a Mexican vessel containing 20 people.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The nighttime run of the Lazora, late in 2019, was but one moment in an oceanic human-smuggling pipeline that grew in volume during the administration of President Donald J. Trump, part of a border-policy-and-enforcement puzzle President Joseph R. Biden Jr. inherits. Cross-border human smuggling at sea has a long history, on California’s coast as elsewhere, and smuggling here rose sharply more than a decade ago. That increase was driven in part by the installation of more fences and sensors on land borders but also by a tourism decline in Baja California as Mexico, gripped by cartel wars, became more dangerous. Lean economic conditions encouraged idled laborers and fishermen, some who used to guide visiting anglers and scuba divers, to work in drug- and human-smuggling rackets. For years the transits have mostly relied on simple, flat-bottomed fishing skiffs with sharp bows, known as pangas, that are well suited for beach launches and landings. Pleasure craft, often stolen, are also involved. The authorities in Southern California have caught almost 6,700 people since late 2009 entering American territory by water; about one-fifth of those were apprehended last year.

Law-enforcement encounters with migrants at sea subsided late in the Obama administration but never stopped, and the authorities say traffic increased anew as boat smuggling became more lucrative in a climate of tighter land-border enforcement under President Trump. The smuggling rings now carry residents from far beyond Mexico, including people from China and Yemen as well as multiple South and Central American countries, who travel to Mexico and seek the services of “coyotes” who arrange illegal trips for fees. Agents say the arrival of migrants from distant countries is readily explicable: Intensified screening to board commercial airliners overseas and at passport control at American airports has led people from other hemispheres to try the Baja-to-San Diego small-boat run.

To deter incursions, the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection cooperate on the water in countersmuggling surveillance and patrols, part of a collaboration with federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies. Integration is necessary, officials from both agencies say, because migrants on a smuggling boat that reaches shore pass through multiple jurisdictions, and varied law-enforcement agencies have different equipment and capabilities as well as distinct responsibilities, ultimately including housing and deporting people who are detained.

For Customs and Border Protection, ocean enforcement in Southern California falls to the San Diego office of the Air and Marine Operations branch, an organization that nationally operates roughly 300 vessels and 240 aircraft, including Black Hawk helicopters and Predator drones. The militarization of the agency predates the Trump administration. C.B.P. received its first 41-foot Coastal Interceptor Vessel in 2016, before Trump won the election; the first Super King Air Multi-Role Enforcement Aircraft, the type that flew over the Lazora, were fielded years earlier.

Given the agency’s reliance on equipment identical or similar to that in military service, it is unsurprising that the branch relies on veterans of the armed forces to fill its ranks. Sixty-two percent of its agents have previous military service. On the aviation side, many C.B.P. pilots and sensor operators are retirees with thousands of hours of flight experience, from transport helicopters to fighter jets. Many agents on the water previously served in the Navy, Marines or Coast Guard. To meet infrastructure needs, the agency is also in part geographically grafted onto Coast Guard and military installations: In San Diego, C.B.P. aircraft fly from a naval air base; its boats tie off at Navy, Marine and Coast Guard docks.

The Air and Marine Operations branch is one set of gears in a sprawling system, and enforcement efforts near San Diego cover a tiny portion of a national border that is porous in many places and ways. Agents in aircraft and boats have almost no influence over national policy or the practices of other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. attorneys’ offices and the Bureau of Prisons — organizations whose actions can create shifts in the cat-mouse encounters at sea. Changes in policy or police actions in Mexico also influence smugglers’ behaviors, another factor in an immigration puzzle that no presidential administration or law-enforcement agency has been able to solve.

The puzzle is complicated enough to defy intuition. Increased emphasis on enforcement, for example, has not necessarily resulted in decreased smuggling traffic. In the last year of President Trump’s term, Southern California experienced the busiest maritime smuggling year on record, so much so that the 1,273 apprehensions of migrants trying to reach the region by sea in fiscal 2020 almost quintupled those of the last year of the Obama administration. Agents attribute the surge to stricter land-border enforcement and perhaps to border closures during the coronavirus pandemic. The fast pace has continued into 2021, including 35 apprehensions in a single weekend in January. Agents anticipate another uptick as smugglers and migrants, aware of the Biden administration’s desire to reduce deportations during an immigration-policy review, test enforcement while the country’s border posture changes yet again.

Three of the Lazora’s passengers after being transferred to a C.B.P vessel.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

As marine agents patrolled that fall, J. made up his mind: He would try to enter the United States by sea — a decision drawn by his arrest on two previous tries to cross the land border in 2018. J. was in his 40s, and came to the United States in the 1990s. His brother also entered and had become a naturalized citizen, a status that allowed their mother to arrive legally in 2002 and naturalize in 2014.

As part of a family straddling two nations, in and out of compliance with immigration law, J.’s life blended success with struggles. He married a woman in the United States who was also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and became stepfather to her young daughter, who had been born in the United States. The couple had four more children, all born American citizens. He owned and ran a landscaping business, and the family lived in a small home a short drive from the public school the children attended. J. also had run-ins with the law, including a misdemeanor conviction for obstructing a police officer in 2001 and two misdemeanor convictions of driving under the influence of alcohol, one in 2004 and another in 2016. For the last conviction, he was sentenced to 15 days in jail and three years of probation. Probationary status brought J. to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a law-enforcement report and Emerson Wheat, one of the lawyers who has represented him. In 2018, ICE opened what it called a “fugitive operation” and sought J.’s arrest.

As a busy father and business owner, J. kept a routine. He was not hard to trace. Three of his children attended the same school, and he drove them there in his silver Chrysler 300 at the same time each day, facts readily available to ICE, which put his home under surveillance.

One school day J. woke and prepared his children breakfast, as was his habit, his stepdaughter says. At about 8:30 a.m., he loaded his children into the car and took them to school. Two deportation officers in plain clothes followed in an unmarked vehicle. At the school, J. escorted one of his daughters, a kindergartner, to her classroom. The deportation officers took him into custody after he returned to his car. While being arrested, J. tossed his keys to a client of his gardening business, who tried to intervene.

His stepdaughter, then in high school, was in class when she heard something was awry. Her mother called before lunch, she says, to tell her J. had not returned. “Where could he be?” her mother asked. She called again at lunchtime to say she had still not heard from him. Shortly before the school day’s last bell, her mother phoned with news: ICE had taken J. “He just called me,” she said. For a moment, his stepdaughter recalls, she felt as if time no longer moved. She rushed home to find her mother screaming; her grandmother told her to pick up the other children. The family protected the kids from hearing of their father’s arrest until his case made local news. His youngest daughter, the kindergartner, saw the report. She asked: “Why is my dad on TV?”

Without J.’s income, his family’s resources dwindled. His stepdaughter took on two jobs — working at Olive Garden and at a carwash — to help their mother keep their home. J. tried fighting the case, but against an assertive government, his position was weak. In autumn 2018, federal agents returned him to Mexico through the border crossing at San Ysidro, Calif., with a warning not to return.

Expulsion did not deter J.’s desire to be with his family. “The best way I can describe it is that your heart does not get deported with you,” says Wheat, who took on J.’s case after his return to Mexico. “It’s a magnet, and it draws you back.” Less than a week after being repatriated, J. scaled a border fence east of Calexico, Calif. A federal agent apprehended him. He was processed and swiftly returned over the border. This new encounter with the authorities also did not dissuade him. J. had a relative in Mexicali, a Mexican border city. There he met a coyote who agreed to provide him an American birth certificate, issued to a citizen of his age with the surname Paez, with which to try crossing into the United States officially. He was to pay $7,000 if successful.

About five weeks later J. walked into the Calexico Point of Entry and presented the birth certificate for admission as German Paez. C.B.P. agents detained him on the spot. His fingerprints revealed his real identity, along with his criminal and immigration history. J. was charged with a felony — misuse of an entry document — and served 85 days in jail until being granted supervised release. Again the government returned him to Mexico.

He turned his attention to a passage by sea. By fall 2019, he had made contact with coyotes who organized panga runs and notified his family of the plan. The fee was to be $10,000, his stepdaughter says, payable upon arrival. The smugglers assured him the panga would have life jackets and had him wait in a house in Baja. His family was nervous, and not just about the ocean journey. J. has diabetes, and his health had been failing, his stepdaughter says. From his relatives’ perspective, it was past time for him to be home, living in the care of his American family. But the way was guarded and the route uncertain.

Migrants from China and Mexico coming ashore at night in San Clemente, Calif., in late 2019, recorded by a C.B.P. plane.CreditCredit…Video by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

While many smuggling runs are sprints through near-shore waters, panga transits from a launch in Baja to the California coast can consume hours or even days. This is because some vessels stop at the Coronado Islands, inside Mexican territory, to load barrels of fuel. Others swing far to sea before turning north and crossing what the authorities call the “maritime boundary line,” or M.B.L. Still others rendezvous with a refueling boat before for the run. Some nights smugglers coordinate in tactics that leverage the speed and maneuverability of small craft, including in two-vessel incursions in which one boat will attract law enforcement so a second boat can follow. “Whenever I see someone inside, I look out further to see what else is coming,” Detection Enforcement Officer Ned Leonard said, as he flew in an aviation patrol over the ocean in late 2019. Sometimes, he said, he spots decoys. “The other night I saw a Jet Ski hanging just below the M.B.L., waiting to draw out law enforcement.”

Before joining the C.B.P. in 2009, Leonard operated sensors in the Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye, a surveillance and command-and-control aircraft with a massive, disc-shaped radome. The plane in which he flew now — a Super King Air turboprop — also makes for a strange sight. With a radar pod bulging on its underside and a pair of stabilizing strakes aft to reduce yaw, it looks like an aeronautical engineer’s flirtation with a flightless bird. These aircraft take off from Naval Air Station North Island most days, turn south and scan their unblinking digital eyes across the waters, trying to sift smuggling craft from the rest. To do so they train lenses on each vessel and make a judgment based on what can be seen of the boat’s cargo or discerned from its behavior. Sensor operators are familiar with common headings to and from fishing spots in Mexico, as well as routes for aquaculture boats from Baja’s ports to bluefin-tuna pens south of the border. They also know the frequently used jumping-off points for smuggling boats, including a marina at which the manager was killed in 2019 in what agents deemed a smuggling-related murder. “Cartels are fighting over this space,” Leonard said.

On this night many boats below moved according to patterns. At the displays, Leonard narrated into a microphone for pilots in the cockpit. Gulls swarmed around one boat. “It’s a good indicator that they are fishing,” he said. He toggled the sensors to another.

Below him, a pair of pangas appeared. They were heading northeast from offshore fishing grounds toward Ensenada, heavy with bundled nets. The wind was blowing chop across a moderate swell. Even loaded with gear and, presumably, catch, they zipped along at 27 knots, bounding and slamming into waves as they beat their way to port. This kind of speed can be decisive. When winds subside and seas go calm, a panga crowded with migrants and pushed by the 200-horsepower Yamaha outboards common to Baja’s fleets can cruise at more than 30 knots, slipping past the authorities and quickly hitting drop-off points.

Enforcement difficulties are compounded by gaps in patrol schedules. The Super King Air is almost all-seeing, and when paired with an Interceptor vessel it can direct agents to suspicious boats. But C.B.P. staff is too small to patrol round the clock. Moreover, C.B.P. aircraft fly from a prominent airfield, and Interceptor vessels dock at piers visible from San Diego and terrain nearby. It is an article of faith among agents that smugglers deploy spotters who relay the agents’ movements. “We are confident that they are watching us take off, or know when we are flying,” says Air Interdiction Agent Troy Fuller, a pilot who formerly flew Marine Corps helicopters. Chad Irick, a supervisory agent and former Army Apache pilot, believes the smugglers have even more information. “They definitely know our shifts, they know what our response times are and they have spotters out,” he says.

Agents also say they have seen indications of real-time smugglers’ communications. Sometimes they are told a vessel in Mexico is approaching and rush from their docks to intercept it, only to have the boat turn around as an enforcement vessel roars out of the harbor. The phenomenon is common enough to have a shorthand expression: T.B.S., for “turned back south.” Leonard said agents suspect smugglers pass alerts on marine-band radio. “The smugglers get on Channel 16 when they know a plane is in the air and whistle or say, ‘la mosca,’” he said, Spanish for “the fly.”

During the years of anti-immigration populism that accompanied Trumpism — with its racist tropes, calls to build more border walls and news reports of migrants or undocumented residents suffering in the immigration crackdown — agents say they have at times felt social disapproval. Some say they hesitate to wear uniforms when commuting or do not tell neighbors what they do for work. Others describe being confronted when ordering food in restaurants or by passers-by at docks, including by a small crowd that called agents “Nazis” as they detained a suspected smuggler at the waterfront Pepper Park in 2018. The unease is also informed by the 2017 shooting of an Air and Marine Operations agent in a C.B.P. uniform outside a Florida grocery store by an 18-year-old man who said he hated cops; the agent, shot five times, survived.

Even as public tensions have accompanied enforcement, Southern California has experienced a rise in boat-smuggling traffic and migrant drownings, all but ensuring those tensions will continue. Agents know they don’t detect all the smugglers, much less catch them. Sometimes abandoned boats are found at sunrise, tied to a harbor dock or banging in the surf; other times, Border Patrol agents are called to collect life preservers, swim noodles, boogie boards or swim fins on beaches, discarded by migrants who made it. Occasionally smugglers game out the gaps in C.B.P. shifts and dare daylight dashes. Soon after Leonard’s evening flight, which was quiet, a panga made a fast passage to Point Loma, dropped passengers in the water and spun around. A Black Hawk helicopter gave chase. But no Interceptor vessel was on the water, and the man easily sped out of U.S. territory — a successful run, at least for him. The migrants he ferried were detained ashore.

The full extent of traffic remains unknowable. Agents note that enforcement data principally reflects events in which a vessel is recovered or people detained; it offers little insight into undetected passages. Shifts in data over time, they say, may be tied to some degree to shifts in enforcement capabilities and efforts, like the arrival of the Super King Air aircraft. Mark Levan, a supervisory agent who has worked the waters since 2002, says there is no solid information on how many boats and migrants get through, but the activity is rising. “We’re catching more than we ever caught, but it’s not slowing down,” he says. Levan is nearing retirement. His government career reaches back to service in the Navy in the 1980s, including alongside Marines in Beirut. He speaks of Baja’s human-smuggling rackets in the knowing tone of someone who has tried for years to counter networks that not only defied crackdowns but thrived.

The smugglers, he says, follow a rational risk assessment. Pangas can carry people or drugs. But penalties for ferrying migrants are lesser than for trafficking drugs, so panga crews prefer to smuggle people. “Boat drivers get a quarter of the time if they’re moving bodies, as opposed to dope,” he says, referring to prison sentences. The fees migrants are willing to pay have also climbed, Levan says, making smuggling an understandable temptation. Prices vary, but Levan says each migrant now pays $10,000 or more for the passage, up from $6,000 a few years ago and far more than when Levan started in his job. (These rates were confirmed by lawyers representing migrants, including Ruth Philips, who says fees run in the $12,000 range, about twice what her clients in land-border-crossing cases often pay to be smuggled in vehicles.)

Boat crews do not see all the money — a network bears other costs, including fuel and two-cycle oil, and paying for temporary housing for migrants on either side of the border and crews who meet drenched passengers on shore and hurry them from the beach. Some networks, Levan says, also underwrite intelligence operations, including assigning English speakers to review court documents of smugglers brought to prosecution for details of law-enforcement tactics, or managing spotters and their communications around San Diego. They also pay cartel fees for operating on cartel turf. But with per-passenger rates often exceeding $10,000, a panga with 10 or 15 migrants can generate more money in one night than a pair of small-boat fishermen might see in a year, a fact that makes pangas — inexpensive skiffs with old engines worth a few thousand dollars — practically and financially disposable, the plastic spoons of the smuggling world.

Pangas are not the only means of reaching California by water. Smugglers sometimes use personal watercraft like Jet Skis to ferry single passengers, dumping them near land and reversing the journey alone. Fast and maneuverable, these craft frustrate most interdictions. In fiscal 2020, smugglers used personal watercraft at least 88 times near San Diego, according to law-enforcement data. Smugglers also operate stolen pleasure boats, hiding migrants in cabins to blend into traffic. One agent said distinguishing stolen boats from legal boats is less like looking for a needle in a haystack than “looking for a needle in a stack of needles.” As sensor operators have become adept at spotting pangas, the smugglers’ use of pleasure craft has increased.

C.B.P.’s refit with new aircraft and vessels over the last decade, coupled with smuggler persistence, have pitted two sides in risky open-water matchups. With four outboard engines delivering a combined 1,400 horsepower, Coastal Interceptor Vessels can reach speeds exceeding 65 miles per hour, faster than any panga yet encountered in California waters. This means agents frequently overtake smuggling boats and order them to stop.

Many smugglers comply, yielding to the imposing arrival of an enforcement boat with blue lights flashing. Some smuggling crews drive on, trying to beeline or outmaneuver pursuers long enough to reach either the surf or legal sanctuary in Mexican waters. Lawyers who represent migrants say that because smugglers face harsher legal treatment than passengers, when a panga is detected, the interests of smugglers and migrants can instantly diverge — in situations in which migrants are vulnerable and powerless. “It is not uncommon for load drivers, whether in a car or on a boat, to try to avoid apprehension at all costs,” Philips says. “Our clients get hurt when it ends badly.” She adds, of the drivers: “I would compare them to mules, who don’t worry about the safety or comfort of their cargo and will discard them if and when necessary to evade arrest.”

When smuggling vessels flee, agents follow a set of practiced escalations they call the “small-boat interdiction program.” This begins with an agent firing a pair of red flares from a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, typically across a noncompliant vessel’s bow. If the boat does not stop, the Interceptor pulls alongside and the agent fires with disintegrating frangible ammunition into the boat’s engine. Frangible ammunition, designed to be nonpenetrating, is less likely than a solid slug or bullet to ricochet off an engine block; the C.B.P. says it reduces chances of harm to people in pangas and that stopping vessels this way is safer than allowing overloaded boats to reach the surf, where migrants have drowned. Shotgun blasts from about 10 feet at engines that panga drivers often hold by tiller are intimidating to the point of being psychologically overpowering. They tend to bring chases to an end. But smuggling captains’ skills and intentions vary, and boats sometimes collide. In 2012 a panga rammed an inflatable Coast Guard boat near Santa Cruz Island, killing Senior Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III. In 2015 a panga and an enforcement vessel collided, and the panga capsized, pitching 20 migrants into the water and leading to the drowning of Graciela Lopez Franco, a 32-year-old citizen of Mexico. A federal judge found the accident “was solely caused by the erratic operation of the panga by the driver.” Robert Schroth, a lawyer who represents migrants, said passengers that night pleaded with the panga driver to stop, but he was reckless and high on meth.

Even without the perils of high-speed, low-light interdiction, California’s big surf and cool waters claim lives. Passengers leaping from small craft for short swims to shore have drowned, including a man whose body washed up at La Jolla in 2017. On occasion pangas swamp or roll over, pitching people into waves or rip currents, as happened last August when two migrants died at Ocean Beach. Wheat, the defense attorney, surfs early most mornings. By chance he arrived soon after this incident and saw the two men dead on the sand near gathering Border Patrol agents.

Supervisory Marine Interdiction Agent Kristofer Goland on patrol in Oct. 2019 near San Diego, Calif.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The wind was down and seas were glassy one night in October 2019 when a Coast Guard cutter spotted a skiff crossing from Mexican waters. The boat was moving fast — 38 knots, the first radio chatter said; almost 44 miles per hour. This was faster than the cutter. The sensors on an aircraft overhead showed a boat packed with people, about a dozen in all. Two Interceptor vessels rushed from their piers. Aluminum hulls rose up as they accelerated through the channel, climbing to a speed of 57 knots, about 65 miles per hour. They wove past kelp beds south of Point Loma and into the open Pacific.

The panga had a 20-mile lead, which put math in its favor: The enforcement vessels would need an hour at full throttle to pull alongside. In that time the panga could pass roughly 40 miles of beaches, onto almost any of which it could drop passengers. But the smugglers had been seen, so they also faced a movable gantlet on land. From a flight-operations center at North Island, Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Christopher Cokeley, a former Air Force F-16 pilot, radioed updates. Cokeley is regarded by colleagues as especially attentive to data; he has combed through records and reports in search of patterns, and tried to adjust C.B.P. patrol times to what the data says about smuggler habits and tactics. In this dash the agents knew the panga captain probably had an intended landing spot, where waiting guides and rides would be positioned to usher migrants from surf to freeway, then to stash houses in San Diego or Orange Counties. Border Patrol agents were preparing to cut them off and round them up on foot.

Running parallel to shore, the chase reached a long patch of near-darkness at the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, then the bright lights of the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5. The panga — on a straight compass heading — had traveled far enough to be closer to Los Angeles than San Diego. When enforcement boats were minutes behind, Cokeley’s voice again came over the radio. At the operations center, he was watching a live sensor feed. The driver had turned east toward San Clemente. The skiff rode through the surf north of the Trestles, a popular point break. Passengers spilled out. “He’s on the beach!” Cokeley said. “He’s on the beach!”

Agents on the ground arrived. “They’re running north toward the train tracks,” Cokeley said. Inland and uphill the migrants climbed, across the tracks, over a steep bank to a grove of towering palms, rushing onto the palatial grounds of a waterfront mansion during their first minutes in the United States. Cokeley consulted a street map and called out the address. The C.B.P. boats bobbed just outside the surf, watching Border Patrol agents fan out with flashlights. One by one, they began running the passengers down. Soon they detained six citizens of China and three of Mexico. At least two people eluded capture; their nationalities remain unknown.

High-speed dashes are not the only way. Some migrants forgo boats and fees altogether. They swim, wading from beaches in Tijuana, stroking out to sea and crossing the border away from land. Then they turn east, guided by the skyline glow, and slip ashore near Imperial Beach — feats of endurance and athleticism requiring hours in chilly water at night. Infrared video cameras on shore, watched from a Coast Guard operations center, often detect their efforts. Enforcement boats are then sent out. When swimmers are struggling or ask for assistance, agents pull them aboard and hand them off to Border Patrol in the harbor. This has costs. Ferrying swimmers takes an Interceptor off the water for hours. Some agents said they suspect smugglers send swimmers to tie up enforcement assets, then run pangas or personal watercraft across the line. In fiscal 2020, the authorities documented 97 “swimmer events” in these waters, a record; in the last year of the Obama administration, there were 24.

C.B.P. agents transferring migrants to the enforcement vessel, with the smugglers handcuffed at the stern.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The night after the panga landed in San Clemente, the Coast Guard alerted agents on a graveyard shift that swimmers had been spotted on video crossing the line. Bundled in watch caps and jackets, the agents started engines, headed to water off Imperial Beach and began puttering through darkness, blue lights flashing and white searchlight sweeping the surface. Marine Interdiction Agents Evan Wagley and Craig Jenkins stood at gunwales and peered into the night. Wagley, a former Border Patrol agent who captains fishing charters, spends more time on the water than perhaps any of his peers; during this week he had worked grueling hours, chasing tuna by day and patrolling for pangas at night. He was on the long chase to San Clemente the night before and now carried himself against the 1:45 a.m. chill with a moonlighter’s measured pace.

The seas were without swell, and the sky was moonless. The polluted Tijuana River leaves Mexico and drains through an estuary on the American side. A cold wind blew from shore. Even more than a mile out, the ocean smelled of sewage. The boats slid slowly through wind and stink. The searchlight fell upon a pair of heads and shoulders rising above the water. Two swimmers were side by side, squinting into the light. One was an adult man, the other appeared to be a teenager, possibly his son. They were more than a mile inside U.S. waters and a similar distance from shore in water about 30 feet deep. The ocean temperature was in the low 60s. They wore wet suits but no fins. The younger swimmer had looped his right arm through an inner tube the size of a wheelbarrow tire, a makeshift life ring. From it a small plastic bag dangled in the water; such bundles typically contain personal items — dry clothes, a phone, money, a bit of food — bare provisions to start life in the United States.

The pair kept swimming. Jenkins dropped a yellow life preserver onto the water beside them. They paid it no mind. “Agua,” the older man said. Jenkins tossed him a plastic bottle of water. The swimmers turned vertical, treaded water and shared it. When they finished, the empty bottle floated away as they stretched themselves horizontally and swam away from the boat again. The vessels followed behind. Truck lights flashed on shore where Border Patrol agents waited. Agents told the swimmers to head to the light and make a decision. If they stepped onto dry sand they would be detained. If they remained in the water, even knee-deep, they could walk back to Tijuana without arrest.

The interaction was typical of law-enforcement encounters with migrants on the water: limited to the point of glancing. Agents rarely learn migrants’ names, much less anything of their background. They pass them to land-based agents. These swimmers were a Border Patrol case now. The vessels spun and headed back to sea. The swimmers, they later heard, opted to trudge back to Mexico.

Two swimmers who left the Baja Peninsula to reach a beach near San Diego being intercepted about a mile offshore by the C.B.P.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Calm weather persisted for several nights, creating conditions in which agents expected more smugglers to risk runs. Many of the same agents were on duty a few nights later when an aircraft crew spotted a panga loitering near the Coronado Islands. This was the Lazora. It was loaded with people a few miles south of the line, positioned for a run. J. was aboard.

The panga’s crew, agents said, was probably making phone calls, asking spotters whether C.B.P. boats were at their docks or calling drivers to ensure passengers would be met with rides. At about 12:45 a.m. two C.B.P. vessels left the harbor. They drove fast, navigation lights out to avoid being seen, beyond a point where they thought the panga might cross. They settled into an idle about 10 miles west-southwest from Point Loma, seven miles north of the border. They were in several hundred feet of water, inside the Coronado Escarpment, where the bottom falls away clifflike and the sea floor is more than a half-mile down. They waited.

To their south the Lazora lingered. For an hour, Cokeley, the supervisory agent, shared its compass headings and speeds. The panga stopped, started, steered erratically, stopped again. “Target heading 250 at 12 knots,” he said. The boat was driving west, away from land. Agents suspected its crew knew an aircraft was circling.

At 2 a.m. the Lazora slowed again. At 2:47 Cokeley declared it “D.I.W.” — dead in the water, no longer making way. Nautical twilight was about three hours off. If the smugglers planned to put their passengers ashore before Southern California woke, time was short. At 2:56 a.m., the sensor showed it: The Lazora had turned toward American waters. It was heading north at 20 knots.

At this heading and speed, the panga would leave Mexican territory in about 15 minutes. An agent said the last pause may have been the panga captain’s final check. “He probably made a phone call,” he said, “and they said, ‘Go!’” The Lazora accelerated to 24 knots, crossed the line and turned east. “They are starting to head to Point Loma,” Cokeley called out.

At about 3:15 a.m., agents throttled engines and closed in. The pursuit was swift. The lead boat approached the Lazora’s port stern and switched on lights. The panga pressed on. In the bow, Marine Interdiction Agent Kurt Nagel, a former Marine Corps machine-gunner, fired two shotgun flares about five seconds apart. They flew past the panga and landed on the water. Nagel pumped the shotgun and chambered the first frangible round. The driver kept fleeing. The enforcement vessel pulled in close. From about a dozen feet away, Nagel fired into the outboard engine, then again. The impacts struck about two feet from the smuggler at the tiller. The Lazora stopped.

It was a cheerless sight: a white-and-blue trimmed panga, packed with people, engine cowling showing holes where shotgun rounds hit. Cold and deflated, the passengers barely spoke. A few women clustered in the middle. Men huddled forward and aft, including one whose torso was clothed in only a short-sleeved T-shirt. J. was among them. Nagel and Wagley stepped on board, handcuffed the men at the engine and leaned them forward onto their chests.

The man in short sleeves bent over the Lazora’s starboard gunwale and vomited red fluid. “Careful,” Wagley said. “Tuberculosis.” Another agent wondered if the passenger was wounded. The migrant managed the wan smile of a seasick man. “No, no,” he said. “Jugo,” Spanish for juice. He nodded to an empty juice container sloshing in the panga’s bilge.

In 35 minutes it was over. One C.B.P. boat steamed away, carrying detainees for processing. The crew of the second C.B.P. boat fastened a rope to the Lazora’s bow and began towing. It would be impounded, then shredded — the end of one panga in a fleet that keeps coming.

The Lazora after it was stopped.CreditCredit…Video by C. J. Chivers

On Oct. 31, 2019, the two men running the Lazora, Juan Audelo-Guerra and Adan Audelo-Medina, were charged with federal crimes: bringing in aliens for financial gain, and bringing in aliens without presentation, punishable by prison sentences as long as 10 years.

The passengers faced less legal peril but considerable hardship. Classified as material witnesses, they were deemed necessary if the Audelo cases went to trial. They were indefinitely detained, held in legal limbo in prisonlike conditions at the San Luis Regional Detention Center in Arizona. This practice, common under the Trump administration, frustrated many lawyers for migrants, who call it punitive, inhumane, unnecessary and expensive to taxpayers. Under previous administrations, they said, the government often released migrants on bail, and many were able to work temporarily or go home.

In the Lazora case, the government freed the witnesses and returned them to Mexico by early 2020, when the smugglers opted for plea agreements. Juan Audelo-Guerra, who admitted to captaining the Lazora, was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment; Adan Audelo-Medina, the refueler, received 13 months and a day.

J. had anticipated wading ashore in California before a sunrise in October, paying his fee and being reunited with his family in November. From the outset his journey brought disappointment. On the night he and his fellow passengers met the Lazora, he saw only a few life preservers. The coyotes had lied. He boarded nonetheless and rode north, into fresh legal trouble. Again his fingerprints revealed his identity and immigration record, which showed that when he tried to re-enter the United States on the Lazora he remained under supervised release for the 2018 misuse-of-documents case. The judge who sentenced him in that case now ordered him to serve six more months in jail.

J. spent late 2019 and the first months of 2020 in the Western Region Detention Facility in San Diego, a private prison, where he was visited occasionally by Wheat. The prison is blocks from where vessels that detained him dock, and throughout his incarceration the C.B.P. was busy. Smuggling boats kept crossing, sometimes tragically. A few weeks after his arrest a boat carrying 13 people in foul weather capsized in Mexican waters, killing nine. In February 2020, the engine on a panga stalled while approaching Imperial Beach. The driver, previously convicted of smuggling, dove into the water, abandoning his passengers to the fate of a boat adrift. The panga flipped. Two migrants drowned. Last fall the driver was sentenced to 83 months’ imprisonment for trying to smuggle in illegal migrants resulting in death, and other charges.

While J. served his sentence, his stepdaughter traveled to San Diego to visit him. They had not seen each other in two years. When guards brought him out, she was shocked. Before her was her family’s patriarch, jailed for trying to reach home. He looked weak, tired and frail. His diabetes, she says, was untreated. “He lost so much weight,” she says. He avoided looking her in the eyes.

During the trip, aching for real reunion, wondering if J. would ever live with his family again, his stepdaughter visited La Jolla, the point jutting into the Pacific about 10 miles north from where J. had hoped to land. A watery vista spread before her — an area where many nights pangas try to pass and where in 2017 a migrant washed up dead. Racked with sorrow, she allowed herself to dream. She almost thought she could see him out there, somehow evading the patrols, drawing near. “I was looking at the ocean,” she says. “I was envisioning him finally coming home.”

It took C.B.P. agents about half an hour to remove everyone from the Lazora, which was then impounded.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Tyler Hicks is a New York Times photojournalist based in Kenya whose work focuses on conflict and war.

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