- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Call them smugglers with a heart.

When agents stopped a truck going through a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Texas this month, they found 70 illegal immigrants in the semitrailer — and a walkie-talkie and two hatchets.

The smugglers had placed the radio and hatchets there to help the migrants call for help and break out of the trailer should they run into trouble.

It’s one response to the shocking case of migrants who became trapped in another trailer on a hot Texas day on June 27. Fifty-three of them ended up dead in what became the worst border tragedy in recent memory.

The deaths reverberated across the smuggling community. Migrants themselves told Border Patrol agents that they heard about the tragedy and feared for their lives when they were loaded into trucks or car trunks to try to make their way from the border into the interior of the U.S.

Few, however, appear to have been deterred from attempting the perilous journey. The hatchet-sharing smugglers also appear to be a rarity. Most smugglers go about their deadly business with little change.

SEE ALSO: Smugglers left three illegal immigrants to die in New Mexico

Just two days after the 53 deaths, agents nabbed another truck taking the same Texas route from Laredo to San Antonio on another 100-degree day. Nearly two dozen illegal immigrants were stuffed behind a false wall in the truck. One fell unconscious in the heat and had to be revived by emergency medical providers.

All along the border, agents continue to find smugglers risking the lives of illegal immigrants.

The United Nations reported in early July that the U.S.-Mexico border was the world’s most dangerous international boundary crossing in 2021. It is right on pace this year.

The devastating death toll has spurred a search for blame. Immigrant rights groups say it belongs to the increasing get-tough approach to border security that the U.S. has been pursuing for decades.

When the border was easy to cross, migrants would walk on their own through urban areas. Almost all were single adult men, and many would stay for an agricultural picking season and then head home, confident that they could make the trip again the next season.

As the border hardened, migrants took to harsher crossings and increasingly turned to “coyotes,” the smugglers who facilitate the trip. The cartels took notice and began to assert control. All of it pushed the price of the journey higher and made migrants view the trip less as short-term work and more as a lifetime investment.

SEE ALSO: Supreme Court rejects Biden’s bid to revive policy stopping deportations

A typical Mexican coming through Laredo and headed to San Antonio — the route taken by the 53 doomed migrants — will pay about $8,000 for the journey. Central Americans typically pay about $10,000 per person, though some have reported to agents that they paid as much as $19,000.

America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group, says the U.S. must ease its laws or else the deaths will continue.

“We have long needed a new approach: to put smugglers and traffickers out of business, to expand legal channels for safe and orderly migration, to address and alleviate the root causes of forced migration, and to approach this through cooperation on a hemispheric basis rather than pretending these issues are mostly about our southern border,” said Douglas Rivlin, communications director at America’s Voice.

Border Patrol agents say the rising death toll is a matter of math: More people are coming, so many more are dying.

Rodney Scott, who served as chief of the Border Patrol at the end of the Trump administration and into the early months of the Biden administration, said President Biden’s team dismantled what had been an effective strategy to discourage the punishing illegal crossings.

“The blood is definitely on the smugglers’ hands, but in this case, there’s also blood on this administration’s hands,” he said.

Two men have been charged in the 53 deaths. One was accused of being the smuggling organizer, and authorities said the other was the driver. They connected him to the truck by examining surveillance footage of the Border Patrol highway checkpoint on Interstate 35 between Laredo and San Antonio. They said they spotted the man in the driver’s seat.

Those checkpoints are under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy.

Agents man dozens of checkpoints on highways across the Southwest, creating a kind of second border miles from the international boundary. Migrants must break through the checkpoints to go deeper into the U.S.

The checkpoints account for just 2% of Border Patrol arrests, according to an audit last month by the Government Accountability Office. Checkpoints are also responsible for most of the Border Patrol’s seizures of heroin and methamphetamine, and they accounted for half of fentanyl seizures from 2016 to 2020.

Smugglers meticulously track checkpoint operations and wait for times when a contraband-sniffing dog isn’t on duty or traffic is too heavy for agents to inspect vehicles.

It doesn’t help that the administration has had to shift agents away from checkpoint duties to process illegal immigrants caught and released at the border, said Victor Manjarrez Jr., a longtime agent who now teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“You may have a checkpoint open, but you don’t have the staff you normally do. What the agent’s doing at that point is waving people through because it becomes unsafe to do an inspection,” Mr. Manjarraz said.

Authorities haven’t revealed whether the doomed migrants were in the truck as it went through the Interstate 35 checkpoint or whether they were on foot walking around the checkpoint, to be picked up by the truck at a distance from the border. That is another common tactic of smugglers.

Mr. Manjarrez said that even given the workarounds and challenges, checkpoints are worth the effort. He said the only thing that will reduce the number of deaths is cutting the number of people.

“You’ve got to be able to reduce the flow because once you’re able to reduce the flow, you’re able to look at things that stick out,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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