Chris Lange, FISM News
Teenagers in the U.S. and Mexico are being paid to transport illegal immigrants across the border in increasing numbers, in the most recent trend that highlights the dangers and ramifications of the current border crisis.
Transnational criminal organizations use social media and word of mouth to lure young drivers into smuggling migrants into border towns in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere, promising good pay and minimal legal repercussions, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as first reported by Reuters.
Children, some as young as 13 years old, accounted for one in four drivers caught smuggling migrants in the Sunland Park-Santa Teresa, New Mexico, area in 2021, according to a CBP news release.
The illegal activity is so prolific that locals have taken to referring to the young drivers, who can earn hundreds of dollars per migrant, as “Ubers.” Most of the teens are recruited from Sunland Park, a border town with three times the national poverty rate where a third of the residents are minors, many of whom come from broken families.
Border Patrol Agent Gerardo Galvan told Reuters that these young drivers are “told that if they go fast enough we’re going to stop pursuing them.”
“This is an alarming trend, because many of these teenagers underestimate the severity of the crime,” Rio Grande Valley Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings said. “Not only can they be prosecuted and sent to jail, but they also endanger lives through their actions.” Hastings has urged parents in the region to talk to their children “on the potential consequences and dangers of this trend.”
But human-trafficking rings are banking on the drivers’ minor status to avoid arrest, and for good reason.
Las Cruces Assistant Federal Public Defender Amanda Skinner told Reuters that, unless the juvenile has a prior offense, the majority of teens facing smuggling charges are merely placed on probation. Skinner’s office represented four teen smugglers over the course of the first few months of 2022.
“We don’t typically see higher-ups charged,” Skinner said, adding that “the vast majority of our cases are drivers.”
One of the teen smugglers, a 17-year-old who called himself “Santi,” told Reuters that he has been smuggling migrants across the border for a year. He said that he had been stopped by CBP agents before but has never faced charges.
“I don’t want to go to jail for this,” he said, acknowledging that his minor status reduces his risk of legal repercussions for his crimes.
Inexperienced teen drivers operating vehicles packed with migrants while racing to evade law enforcement present a great risk to themselves, their passengers, and border agents. In 2020, border agents were in pursuit of an 18-year-old smuggling 10 illegal immigrants across the border in El Paso when the teen crashed, resulting in the deaths of four local minors and three migrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union and some Democratic U.S. lawmakers have used the tragedy to demand that Border Patrol cease high-speed pursuits of suspected smugglers unless they believe a violent felony has been committed.
“If Border Patrol itself knows that such a high percentage of the drivers of these vehicles in particular areas are children being recruited in this way, then that should hedge against them conducting these types of dangerous vehicle pursuits,” ACLU lawyer Shaw Drake said.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has reported nearly one million illegal immigrant encounters thus far in Fiscal Year 2022 and a total of 1,956,519 in FY 2021. The Biden administration recently acknowledged that its decision to end Title 42, a COVID-19 Trump-era policy that allows for expulsion of illegal immigrants at the border, will likely result in another massive influx of migrants into the U.S.