Searching the night for signs of migrants’ boats offshore

By Jeanette Steele
Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 7:05 a.m.

Master Chief Jeffrey Sherman comes up to the bridge of the Coast Guard cutter Sea Otter just after 3 a.m. The night is still inky black here, about 30 miles off the coast of La Jolla. It’s the witching hour, a crew member says.

That’s the time when the 87-foot Coast Guard vessel, performing a typical nighttime patrol off San Diego, expects to see action, if it’s going to happen. Experience tells the 11-man crew that if they are going to catch migrant smugglers making a clandestine trip to U.S. shores, it will be around 4 a.m.

The sight of a ramshackle open boat, called a panga, is fairly common on San Diego County shores, the sign that a group of migrants tried to make an illegal landing on U.S. turf. What most people might not see is one of four large Coast Guard cutters patrolling 20 to 30 miles off the coast all night.

Running with lights off, they look for pangas — really, any suspicious boats. It’s a burgeoning mission for the Coast Guard, which has been given more manpower since 2001 to focus on law enforcement and tightening up the maritime border.

As the United States has fenced off its land border in San Diego County and in the Tucson area, pushing would-be migrants into the rough mountains in between, federal data show people are increasingly turning to the sea.

Immigrant apprehensions in the waters off San Diego County and along its beaches have more than tripled in three years, from 230 in fiscal 2008, to 400 in 2009, to 867 in the year ended Sept. 30, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But it’s not an easy journey. Even for the Sea Otter, with a galley kitchen, restrooms, heat and an enclosed bridge and crew quarters, the dark sea at night is not a pleasure cruise.

On Monday night, accompanied by a Union-Tribune reporter and photographer, the cutter was out for 12 hours, bobbing and rolling in five-foot swells as the crew tried to sleep in shifts.

If they find migrants, often packed 20 to 25 in a 30-foot open boat, they take them on board and transport them to a San Diego Bay dock for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a partner agency in the migrant interdiction job.

“It’s a long day, and it’s not friendly or gentle by any stretch