Migrant Smugglers Get Creative in Face of Increased U.S. Border Enforcement
PHOENIX, AZ - Marisela Chavez-Ramirez's journey from Mexico ended when U.S. border officials found her and her 3-year-old daughter curled up in the gas tank of a Dodge Caravan.
A smuggler had squeezed the pair into the tank, accessible through the floor of the van, to try to sneak them through the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego. They were discovered after an inspection revealed that a second tank had been added to carry fuel.
"To see a child, with a baby bottle in its mouth, that was shocking," said Adele Fasano, director of field operations for the San Diego district of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Smugglers and individual migrants have a long history of adapting their tactics to try to circumvent whatever barriers immigration officials put in their way. But they've shown more creativity in recent years as the government has launched repeated crackdowns along the frontier.
Fasano said there has been a spike in California in cases where smugglers place women and children in small compartments in vehicles to drive them across the border. Migrants have also been found inside washing machines and sewn into car seats.
Arizona-based agents also have found smugglers who disguised their vehicles to look like TV news trucks or U.S. Border Patrol vehicles. A fake FedEx truck has even been used to haul migrants.
In Texas, authorities once found a man rolling down a street disguised as a tumbleweed. People have also tried attaching cow hoofs to their feet to disguise their footprints.
"The only problem with that is there aren't too many two-legged cows," said Doug Mosier, spokesman for the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas.
More women and children are being apprehended because migrants are no longer doing much seasonal work in the United States, said Kat Rodriguez, of the Tucson-based human rights group Derechos Humanos.
Because of the expense and danger, rather than traveling back to Mexico after working, the men now stay here. Their wives and children travel north to join them.
"It is a simple fact of wanting to be with their families," Rodriguez said. "Our policies have caused separation of loved ones."
The National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso displays many artifacts from botched crossing attempts, like the cow-hoof shoes, carpet-covered sandals, and a boat made from truck hoods.
"Desperate people are very ingenious and very clever, and I am quite often surprised at the complexity and the thought behind devising these things," said museum curator Brenda Tisdale. "Sometimes my heart is broken because they resort to things that lead them to be injured, stranded or dead by the smugglers. You have to feel compassion for people who are driven to these measures."
Officials credit their operations for the changing smuggling techniques.
Hundreds of additional agents have been sent to Arizona, for example, to try to stop the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have made this state the most active illegal crossing point on the southern border.
"It is getting a lot more difficult for them to come across the border," said Andrea Zortman, a Border Patrol spokeswoman in Arizona. "They are trying to disguise vehicles, blend in with ranchers, hide footprints. We are seeing their frustration."
In two separate cases in January, a total of 29 illegal immigrants were found in dump trucks in southwestern Arizona, said Border Patrol spokesman Joe Brigman. The same month, he said, another 46 people were found hiding inside plywood compartments within bales of hay on two tractor-trailers.
The flood of illegal immigrants has prompted the creation of the Minuteman Project, in which volunteers fan out across 23 miles of the San Pedro Valley to watch the border and report any illegal activity to federal agents.
Vehicles are now the favored smuggling method for illegal immigrants traveling to California, immigration officials said. Devices such as the government's biometric screening system, which scans visitor's faces, have made it hard to use fake identification cards to gain entry, Fasano said.
"The creativity is basically without bounds," Fasano said.
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