Smuggled migrants face added layers of danger in tractor-trailers

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — For a human smuggler, the tractor-trailer is an essential tool for transporting immigrants across the American Southwest.

Migrants high in the cabin of a tractor-trailer June 2, 2002 in Salton, Calif. (CBP)

In recent weeks, U.S. Border Patrol agents have stopped numerous truck drivers carrying undocumented immigrants, including one who trapped 58 migrants inside a sealed tractor-trailer.

On Tuesday evening, agents from California’s El Centro Sector arrested a Mexican driver at the immigration checkpoint on Highway 86 near Salton, Calif.

A drug-sniffing dog alerted agents to the cabin of the Freightliner before agents found three undocumented immigrants hiding under blankets. The driver and three migrant men were medically cleared before being sent back to Mexico. The driver had his work visa canceled and now faces alien-smuggling charges.

This incident is the eighth of its kind this year in California’s Imperial Valley, and the second in two weeks.

On May 26, agents staffing the same checkpoint discovered 12 undocumented immigrants in the cargo area of a tractor-trailer. Ten men and two women were locked inside with no safety restraints and no way to extricate themselves from the inside, according to a U.S. Customs and Protection news release. The driver, a 36-year-old Mexican national himself, was in the country illegally, agents said.

Agents staffing the immigration checkpoint on Highway 86 near Salton, Calif., discovered 12 undocumented immigrants in the cargo area of a tractor-trailer May 26, 2020. (CBP)

El Centro agents also discovered six smuggled immigrants inside a hydraulic dump trailer early last month.

The smuggling of migrants in tractor-trailers has been much more common in Texas, especially in the Southern part of the state. It also has become increasingly dangerous with the introduction of the coronavirus, officials say.

Border Patrol officials said from the time COVID-19 border policies were put in place March 21 to May 15, the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors responded to 28 tractor-trailer cases.

“The risk posed by these tractor-trailer loads increases dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, our agents have discovered more than 492 people concealed in these dangerous and life-threatening conditions,” U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott said in a May 15 news release.

Four days before on May 11, border agents freed 49 undocumented immigrants from a tractor-trailer at the Interstate 35 checkpoint north of Laredo. Again, agents said the trailer was locked, and the migrants had no safety restraints and no means of escape.

CBP often says in its news releases that, “despite the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, smugglers continue to endanger the lives of individuals they exploit and the health and safety of our Nation.”

But using tractor-trailers to smuggle humans has proven unsafe and deadly even before the coronavirus.

In July 2017, for example, authorities discovered more than 100 migrants stuffed inside a trailer in the parking lot of a San Antonio Walmart. Ten people died and another 39 were hospitalized for dehydration. The driver was sentenced to life in prison.

And it’s not unique to the States. In one of Britain’s worst human-smuggling tragedies last October, authorities found 39 people dead in a truck in an industrial park in Grays, England. The driver was arrested on suspicion of murder.

The San Antonio incident is just one of many that prompted the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector to raise awareness about the dangers of tractor-trailer smuggling.

“Operation Big Rig” and the “No Se Arriesgue,” or “Don’t Risk Your Life” campaign both encourage people to call 911 to report suspicious activity and remind the public that, “They’re humans, not cargo.”

CBP says migrants who embark on the dangerous journey to enter the U.S. illegally “often travel without access to proper medical care and personal protective equipment to protect themselves and others, all while traveling through multiple countries before reaching the United States. The smugglers often force the migrants into cramped compartments and unsanitary stash houses along the journey.”

Plus, officials say, smugglers can demand anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000 per person to smuggle them in tractor-trailers into the U.S.

Nevertheless, the prospect of making it to the U.S. outweighs the risk for many.

Just last Friday, agents rescued 58 individuals from a sealed tractor-trailer that stopped at that same checkpoint near Laredo.

Border agents at the Falfurrias checkpoint discovered 10 undocumented immigrants hiding in the sleeping area of a tractor-trailer May 23, 2020. (CBP)

Agents said the people inside were from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, and all were in the country illegally. The driver, however, was a U.S. citizen. Though agents seized the tractor and trailer, the incident remains under investigation.

The previous evening, agents at the Falfurrias checkpoint discovered 10 undocumented immigrants from Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico hiding in the sleeping area of a tractor-trailer.

On two separate incidents May 23, smugglers used box trucks to smuggle immigrants in the Laredo area. In the morning, a Border Patrol dog alerted agents to 13 Mexican nationals at the I-35 checkpoint. Not long after, agents at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Freer, Texas, found an access panel that led to a secret compartment where 10 Mexican nationals were being hidden. In both instances, the driver was a U.S. citizen.

“This smuggling tactic is putting lives at risk — the lives of the migrants, our agents, and the American public — all for the sake of profit,” Chief Scott said.

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