SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Eight people were killed when two migrant smuggling boats approached a San Diego beach amid heavy fog and one capsized in the surf, authorities said Sunday, calling it one of the deadliest human smuggling operations ever in the U.S.
A Spanish-speaking woman on one of the panga-style boats called 911 late Saturday to report that the other vessel had overturned in waves off Black's Beach, according to U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm.
"The woman who called stated that the boat that overturned had 15 people on it, but that was just an estimate," Brahm said.
Coast Guard and San Diego Fire-Rescue crews pulled the bodies of eight adults from the water, but thick fog hampered the search for additional victims.
San Diego Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said rescuers found the two boats overturned in shallow waters near the shore. An estimated 23 people were on the two boats, he said.
No additional victims were found in the water and officials said some or all of the remaining passengers could have escaped via the beach about 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of downtown San Diego.
A Coast Guard cutter combed the area early Sunday and a helicopter crew joined the search after weather cleared at midmorning.
Hundreds of maritime smuggling incidents occur every year and Saturday's accident was one of the deadliest involving migrants in the U.S., said Eric Lavergne, a Border Patrol spokesperson. In May 2021, a packed boat carrying migrants capsized and broke apart in powerful surf along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen others.
Daniel Eddy, San Diego Fire-Rescue's deputy chief of operations, said there was a long debris field on Black's Beach, which is jointly owned by the city and the state.
Pangas, small open boats with outboard engines frequently used in smuggling operations, often come ashore along the wide stretch of sand that's also known as Torrey Pines City Beach and Torrey Pines State Beach, officials said.
Surf was modest late Saturday, with swells around 3 feet (about 1 meter), but Gartland said the area has hidden dangers.
"That area is very hazardous, even in the daytime. It has a series of sandbars and in-shore rip currents, so you can think that you can land in some sand or get to waist-high, knee-high water and think that you're able to be safe to exit the water but there's long, in-shore holes. If you step into those holes, those rip currents will pull you along the shore and back out to sea," he told reporters at a Sunday morning news conference.
The nationalities of the passengers were unknown. Illegal crossings have soared under President Joe Biden, with many migrants turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and being released in the United States to pursue their cases in immigration court.
A pandemic rule scheduled to end May 11 denies migrants a chance to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 but enforcement has fallen disproportionately on Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans because those have been the only nationalities that Mexico agreed to take back.
As a result, people of those four countries have been more likely to try to elude capture, knowing they are likely to be expelled under the public health rule, known as Title 42 authority. Mexico recently began taking back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans under Title 42.
Smuggling off the California coast has ebbed and flowed over the years but has long been a risky alternative for migrants to avoid heavily guarded land borders. Pangas enter from Mexico in the dead of night, sometimes charting hundreds of miles north. Recreational boats try to mix in unnoticed with fishing and pleasure vessels during the day.
South of the U.S. border, there are many secluded, private beaches with gated entrances between high-rises with magnificent ocean views, some only partially built because funds dried up during construction. Popotla, a fishing hamlet where narrow streets are lined with vendors selling a wide variety of local catch, is favored among smugglers for its large, sandy beach and relatively gentle waves.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles.