Fifteen Mexican immigrants were stranded on Santa Cruz Island last week.… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Stranded off the Santa Barbara coast, the illegal immigrants decided that being rescued was more important than reaching their destination undetected.
So one used a cellphone to call 911 on Friday. Boats carrying officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Park Service set off to find them amid the rugged beauty of the eight Channel Islands. Two days later, authorities landed on Santa Cruz Island, where 15 famished, but otherwise healthy, Mexican immigrants awaited.
"They were stranded and couldn't get to the mainland," Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers said Monday. "It was a situation where they chose life over the possible ramifications of making that phone call."
Smugglers increasingly are ferrying illegal immigrants — and drugs — by sea to Southern California. But in an effort to evade dragnets close to the San Diego-Mexico border, they have traveled farther north. In the last few months, there have been two or three smuggling operations a week discovered from Orange County north, immigration officials said.
Boats leaving Mexican waters often head 100 miles out to sea before turning north, putting them on the west side of the Channel Islands, said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's homeland security investigations.
"They think there's going to be less of a chance of getting caught, which is true," Arnold said.
The goal is to get to the mainland, he said. But when smugglers encounter engine trouble or believe the risk of being discovered is too great, they sometimes land on the islands.
Last year, for example, four Mexican drug smugglers were arrested after their boat ran out of fuel and shipwrecked on Santa Rosa Island. The smugglers had hidden more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana in the thick vegetation of a nearby canyon.
In the incident last weekend, an expansive sea-and-air search after the 911 call proved unsuccessful until Sunday around noon, when some of the immigrants flagged down a recreational boater who alerted the Coast Guard.
The group was found in a picturesque cove that leads to a "fairly narrow, steep canyon with a seasonal stream," said Yvonne Menard, a spokeswoman for the Channel Islands National Park.
According to Eggers, Coast Guard Lt. Steve Baldovsky said that he and other rescuers first located four of the immigrants on a beach on the north side of the island, near an anchorage point called Cueva Valdez. The commander of the cutter told Eggers that a few other immigrants soon came out of the scrub, and once they were given food and water, the rest came out.
"They were noticeably tired, but one individual said they found a small amount of water from a creek," Eggers said. "That's why they weren't as dehydrated as you might expect after three or four days. But they were definitely weak and hungry."
It was unclear whether the 14 men and one woman were abandoned by a smuggler, Eggers said, or whether problems with a boat caused them to be stranded on the island. No damaged boat was found, nor evidence that one had sunk. Officials also did not know whether any smugglers were among the group.
The risk smugglers and immigrants take, riding in wooden fishing boats with few supplies, is great, officials said.
The boats, known as pangas, often are packed with 15 or more people and driven by fishermen looking to make some extra money. They typically have two or three motors on the back and extra tanks of fuel for the long trip, but rarely have the type of safety or navigation equipment one would need when traveling far into the Pacific Ocean, Arnold said.
The immigrants were turned over to the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol before being transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Eggers said.
They will be subject to deportation, Arnold said, but some could stay in the country longer if they are needed as witnesses against the smugglers.