Experts says immigration crackdown makes smuggling operations riskier
TOUGHER POLICIES: Experts say crackdown makes operations riskier
July 23, 2017
Updated: July 23, 2017 10:15pm
As the federal government cracks down on immigration, smugglers are turning to riskier and deadlier ways of getting immigrants into the United States, according to experts and advocates who blamed a slew of failed policies for the death of nine immigrants stowed away in a hot tractor-trailer in San Antonio.
It’s a tragic outcome and a crime to smuggle these immigrants, said Jeronimo Cortina, a professor and research associate at the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy. “The real tragedy,” said Cortina, “is that deaths like those in this case are going to be happening again and again, or even more if we don’t tackle the root of the problem.”
Cortina and other experts argue that workers will continue to enter the U.S. illegally as long as there is a supply of jobs, particularly in industries such as agriculture, hospitality and construction.
“It’s a market rule, and it’s not going to change just because you put up more walls,” Cortina said. “And since there aren’t efficient legal mechanisms to deal with this offer-demand cycles, the law of the market is fulfilled instead in the realm of the” black market.
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Businesses seek workers
Although there are visas like the HBs and J-1 that allow employers to bring certain workers from abroad on a temporary basis, businesses have said for years that they are capped at insufficient amounts to meet the demands.
Just last week, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly acknowledged this when he allowed a one-time increase of 15,000 non-agricultural H-2B visas “to provide temporary relief to American businesses at risk of significant harm due to a lack of available seasonal workers.”
In a statement Sunday, he said: “This tragedy demonstrates the brutality of the network of which I often speak. These smugglers have no regard for human life and seek only profits.”
Eduardo Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, said Kelly’s increase in visas “only stresses that the labor is needed.”
“Why are we criminalizing workers? Why is (President Donald) Trump now making it even more terrorizing for workers to work in this country?” questioned Canales.
Advocates says immigration laws have been ineffective in the U.S., where attempts at reform have failed.
“Now we have harsher policies coming around with the new administration that are completely incongruent,” said Luis Salinas, a lecturer at the UH Center for Immigration Research.
This year is on pace to set a record low for illegal immigration. Republican senators are reprotedly drafting a bill in collaboration with the White House that will cut in half the number of immigrants allowed to enter.
Still, countless people remain willing to risk their lives with smugglers who hold little regard for them.
People already have to pass three barriers to enter illegally: the physical border with Mexico, with the river as its main natural feature; the militarized border crossings; and checkpoints into the U.S.
Salinas, who studies border crossing patterns, said that in Texas the typical journeys involve crossing the border on foot, followed by smugglers known as “coyotes” transporting the immigrants in a vehicle.
Smuggling more at a time
With more militarization of the border, coyotes tend to reduce their risks by making fewer trips with more immigrants in each vehicle, according to Salinas.
The immigrants found in the truck in San Antonio probably came up Interstate 35 from the border, Canales said. They most likely were loaded onto a truck at a stash house near Laredo or hiked around the checkpoint, an arduous ordeal that can take days, before being loaded into the trailer. Either way, they would have been exposed to hot and dangerous conditions, he said.
“There’s no vents in those trucks, in those tractor-trailers to let air in,” Canales said. “And that’s a very, very desperate situation for someone to get into that truck like that. People think it’s going to be a short drive to San Antonio.”
Some survivors told local reporters Sunday that the truck was headed to Houston.
“The reason people die, like in this case in San Antonio, is because there isn’t a system that regularizes the labor that we need in this country while we continue enhancing deterrent policies that force people to more dangerous areas and modus operandi,” said Canales.
Those immigrant workers have a double motivation to come – job opportunities in the U.S. and escaping poverty and violence in their homelands, said Martina Grifaldo, the director of the International Latino Alliance, an organization that helps immigrants in Houston.
Grifaldo explains that many of those immigrants “already know that they have high chances to be violated, kidnapped, hurt and killed by gangs on their way to the north, and still they come. A wall is not going to deter them.”
Border Patrol agents in Laredo have reported an increase in smuggling attempts in tractor-trailers in recent months, starting with the discovery of 44 people from Mexico and Guatemala discovered after police stopped an 18-wheeler near one of the city’s international bridges.
On July 7, agents found 72 people from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador inside a locked trailer in the same part of town. The next day, they found 33 people from Mexico and Guatemala inside a trailer stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 35. In another incident last week, agents at the checkpoint found 16 people inside a locked trailer, according to a news release from Border Patrol.
2003 tragedy in Victoria
In one of the biggest smuggling tragedies in the country’s history, 19 people died in 2003 after being abandoned in a trailer in Victoria. The driver of that truck was sentenced to life in prison, but that was overturned and he was later given a prison term of nearly 34 years.
Agents working at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, on U.S. 281 north of McAllen, said they encountered immigrants hidden in trailers twice in one day in mid-June. On one occasion they found 13 immigrants hiding among cargo and on the other, only an hour later, they found eight people hiding in a locked moving truck.
San Antonio Express-News’ Jason Buch contributed to this report.