A view of the San Diego skyline / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who boarded my friend’s boat Sunday each carried what appeared to be multiple firearms. Yet they asked us to take our hands out of our pockets and keep them visible.

“It’s for our safety,” the lead agent explained.

Of course, they were the only ones with weapons. We’d gone to the edge of the bay that afternoon and parked near the Point Loma Lighthouse to take in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. We marveled at the dozens of birds hurling themselves headfirst into the water. This is how we unwind — with a frenzied hunt unfolding before our eyes.

The sun was beginning to set by the time we headed back, but I noticed an unnatural light reflecting off the surface of the boat. Our driver put the cruiser in neutral as we all turned around and tried to figure out what the agents wanted.

The questions, however, were all directed the other way. What are you doing on the water? Where do you live? What’s the address? Do you have registration? Are you harboring any other people below? Are you all United States citizens?

These types of stops and searches in the bay are becoming more common for boaters. As security measures along the land border with Mexico have heightened, federal officials say profit-driven smugglers have increasingly taken to sea in small, overcrowded vessels, putting people’s lives at risk in dangerous conditions.

“Our mission is nothing less than to protect America by reducing the likelihood that dangerous people and capabilities enter the United States between the ports of entry,” said CBP spokesman Ralph DeSio in an email Monday. “We are an All Threats agency and our mission is to Protect America.”

CBP made more than 650 maritime arrests in fiscal year 2019, the highest since fiscal year 2012, when the number was 779, DeSio said.

In one incident last month, CBP took 21 people who were on a motorboat about a mile off of Point Loma into custody. NBC San Diego reported that four were suspected to be smugglers. Two were U.S. citizens and the rest were Mexican citizens.

The number of attempts are on the rise in fiscal year 2020, the Union-Tribune reports, but it might have been partially skewed by seasonal shifts in northbound migration. A city-owned dock on Laurel Street near North Harbor Drive was highlighted as a common destination for maritime smugglers. We’d been stopped not far from there.

A decade ago, NPR reported that federal authorities were trying to find drug tunnels by going door to door in San Diego. Federal authorities now appear to be going boat to boat.

We answered their questions directly and politely. When the agents said they were coming on board, no one in our group complained. Not that we could have, even if we wanted to.

The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from searching people and their property without a warrant and probable cause, but these rights become murky near the border, including outside a designated port of entry. Federal law allows customs officers to board a vessel within a customs-enforcement area to examine documents and conduct a search at any time. The officers are authorized to “use all necessary force to compel compliance.”

As Vox noted in 2018, Congress and the courts have given CBP significant latitude to operate: Its agents can question almost anyone within 100 miles of any border — land or water — about their legal status.

The tone of the conversation on our boat Sunday was casual, but not without tension. The agent who searched our cabin wore a mask that concealed part of his face. The lead agent seemed to relax when he realized he was talking to several journalists. He mentioned that he’d recently taken someone from the New York Times on a ride-along and told us inspections were routine matters, because boats like the one we were driving are commonly involved in human smuggling.

We were soon saying our goodbyes and back to cruising.

Voice of San Diego’s Jesse Marx on a boat. / Photo courtesy of Keith Collins
Voice of San Diego’s Jesse Marx on a boat. / Photo courtesy of Keith Collins

More Border News

Maya Srikrishnan contributed to this report.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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