Migrant smugglers, experts expect business to boom in face of U.S. crackdown
By JULIE WATSON
Associated Press Writer
DOLORES HIDALGO, Mexico- Barely 18, Jose belongs to Mexico's new generation of migrant smugglers _ young, savvy and happy to see Uncle Sam further tighten border security.
Why? It's good for business, he says.
Jose figures more migrants will seek his help if the U.S. Senate approves legislation to double the Border Patrol and put up a virtual wall of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors to monitor the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Border experts say the price for helping Mexicans move north has quadrupled from $300 to $1,200 since 1994, when the U.S. last tightened the rules. Cases are coming to light of smugglers making $1 million or more. And Jose reckons the earnings will rise yet higher if new obstacles go up.
"This is never going to end," he said. "The United States cannot work without Mexicans."
Jose is a lanky, baby-faced teen in a baseball cap who says he started smuggling people late last year and made $16,000 in his first three months. His mother worries, but needs the money _ Jose was making $53 a week cutting lettuce. Talking to a reporter outside their humble, adobe house near this city in central Mexico, Jose and his mother asked to withhold their surname for fear of arrest.
"We're always going to look for a way to get in, and there's always a way," Jose said. "This is a business for everyone."
Not so, says John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who chairs the Senate's Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship subcommittee. The way to hurt smugglers' business is by "securing our borders and working cooperatively with other nations on enforcement," along with providing a temporary worker program, he said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.
The Senate is debating a series of immigration bills. Some simply bolster border enforcement and crack down on employers. Others offer a temporary worker program and possible legalization of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The House version would impose criminal penalties and build 700 miles of border fence.
Victor Clark, a Mexican border expert in Tijuana who has studied smugglers' patterns for decades, agrees with Jose. "This is going to have the opposite effect of what the U.S. government wants, since the demand for migrant smugglers is going to go up," he said.
The smuggling business flourished after the U.S. Border Patrol cracked down on the busiest crossings into Texas and California in 1994.
Migrants were funneled into the remote Arizona desert, and domestic flights into Hermosillo, Sonora, the biggest Mexican city near the Arizona border, jumped from 20 a week in 1994 to nearly 500 today. The airport's baggage claim area is often nearly empty because migrants arrive with little more than a duffel bag for the rest of their journey.
Many risk death walking for 30 hours in 100 degree temperatures through remote desert terrain. The smuggler leading them may well be linked to organized crime, though Jose says he isn't.
That too is a change from the days when it was considered something of a community service in Mexican villages and older, trusted men would show relatives and neighbors the safest routes.
Now a growing number of smugglers are like Jose _ in it just for the money.
"The new generation of migrant smugglers are youths who see their clients as merchandise," Clark said. "Many of them abandon the migrants in the desert or give them drugs, or tell migrants they know the way when they don't, and they end up dying along with the migrants. Others have turned to violence to steal clients from other smugglers."
Smuggling people into the United States from around the world has become a $10 billion-a-year business rivaling drug profits, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who started tracking smuggler profits three years ago.
A Texas-based smuggler who was sentenced to nine years in federal prison in December earned nearly $1 million driving about 6,000 illegal Latin American migrants to work in Chinese restaurants throughout the upper Midwest.
In January, ICE investigators arrested two Texas families who allegedly earned $1.6 million in two years by hiring a fleet of trucks near the border city of El Paso to transport migrants across the United States.
"One truck driver, all he did was transport aliens," said Dan Page, acting special agent in charge for ICE in El Paso.
In the central Mexican ranching town of San Diego, migrants board smugglers' trucks and vans nearly every Sunday to head for the border.
"The smugglers around here have the biggest houses," said resident Guillermo Melchor, who said he paid $1,300 to get to Houston through a trafficking network.
He made it but said his 23-year-old friend, crossing separately, died of a heart attack after taking a stimulant from a smuggler to endure the long desert walk.
Jose charges $1,200 per person, sharing his earnings with a driver who waits on a highway outside Laredo, Texas, to pick up the migrants, and another man who provides a Houston safe house for new arrivals.
He said he made his first $16,000 smuggling 40 people in four journeys from the cactus-studded state of Guanajuato by bus to the border, then across the Rio Grande to meet the driver.
They usually wade across at night, then walk for two hours through the scrubby south Texas desert, with the lights of Laredo in view. Jose's rules are simple: Keep alert. No talking. No smoking. If you see a light flash or hear a noise, it could be the border patrol. If you see someone, run like crazy.
Jose says he treats his migrants well and even helps those he finds abandoned in the desert _ for a price, of course.
After all, he said: "It's business."