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Illegal immigrants stranded on island found hungry after two-day search

July 11, 2011 |  3:36 pm

Aerial view of Santa Cruz Island.

Stranded on a scenic but rugged island off the Santa Barbara coast, the illegal immigrants decided being rescued was more important than reaching their destination.

Map Using a cellphone, one of them called 911 last Friday. Boats set off to find them amid the rough beauty of the eight Channel Islands. Two days later, boats from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Park Service 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 have increasingly ferried illegal immigrants — and drugs — by sea to Southern California. But in an effort to further evade dragnets close to the San Diego-Mexico border, they have traveled ever further north. In the last few months, there has been an average of about two or three smuggling operations a week discovered from Orange County north, immigration officials said.

Smugglers leaving Mexican waters in boats often head 100 miles west before turning north, putting them on the west side of the Channel Islands, said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE 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 they encounter problems such as engine trouble or being discovered, they sometimes land on the islands.

The group was found in a picturesque cove that leads to a “fairly narrow, steep canyon with a seasonal stream,” said Yvonne Menard, a national parks spokeswoman.

“There’s no designated trail in the canyon,” she added. “The area is more popular for day boaters than overnight boaters because the area is subject to western swells.”


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Photo: An aerial view of Santa Cruz Island. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times