The administration's "zero-tolerance" policy is intended to reduce the flow of aliens, and in particular unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and family units, entering illegally across the Southwest border. While this is an end in itself, it in turn serves two significant purposes: First, to reduce the strain put on Border Patrol resources when agents are pulled off of the line to process aliens who have entered illegally. Second, to discourage aliens from placing their lives, safety, and dignity in the hands of alien smugglers.
The first purpose should be obvious. While there has been a significant increase in the last 20 years in the number of Border Patrol agents deployed along the border, the border is long, and even those increased resources are limited.
As USA TODAY has reported, there is no precise measurement of the Southwest border, but estimates range from 1,900 miles to 1,991 miles. Much of it passes through rugged and inhospitable terrain.
As for resources, USA TODAY elsewhere estimated that there were "as many as 18,600 Border Patrol agents deployed along the southern border" as of 2016. While this is almost 10 agents per mile, it actually equals out to many fewer at any given time. Some agents serve in supervisory roles, while others are performing administrative functions. Most importantly, however, agents serve long hours, but not 24 hours a day. On any given shift, the number of agents actually patrolling the border is far lower.
Pulling three of those agents off of the border to process a group of aliens at any given time creates a strain on the ability of the remaining agents to interdict other aliens and contraband coming across the border. As then-Acting Border Patrol Chief (and current Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director) Ronald Vitiello explained to Congress in May 2016:
All individuals apprehended by [U.S. Border Patrol (USBP)] are subject to an immigration inspection, which includes interviewing the subject to establish identification, capturing biometric information (e.g. photograph and fingerprints), entering information into a DHS case tracking and processing system, and checking biographic and biometric records against multiple databases for previous immigration encounters and removals. USBP also checks multiple crime and terrorist databases, including the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for wants/warrants and criminal history, and the TECS database for possible lookouts. If derogatory information is discovered, the records are reviewed by Border Patrol agents and evaluated to determine if a criminal or administrative proceeding, or enforcement action, should be pursued. If there is a want or criminal warrant in the NCIC, the corresponding Federal, state, tribal, or local agency is contacted.
Needless to say, this is not quick work.
This strain on USBP resources is compounded by the fact that there are often spotters working for smuggling organizations keeping watch on both sides of the border, primarily to track the comings and goings of those agents. Arizona Sen. John McCain has explained: "Across our southern border, so-called 'spotters' sit on mountains to direct drug cartels and human traffickers as they attempt to skirt our laws and illegally cross over the U.S.-Mexico border." They also keep watch along the river, as Business Insider reported earlier this month.
Responding to these spotters is exceptionally difficult, however, a fact underscored by the Arizona Daily Star:
Logistically, taking these mountaintop scouts out is a good thing, [retired DEA Tucson Agent in Charge Tony] Coulson said. But a long-term solution would involve intense coordination with investigative agencies to build good, prosecutable cases with strong prison sentences.
Otherwise, Coulson said, "if you arrest them for just immigration violations, short sentences and deportation makes these guys available to their drug organizations, so they will become scouts again because they have that skill set that needs to be used again."
The second purpose of the administration's zero-tolerance policy, however, that of protecting the lives of potential migrants, may be less intuitive. Even the Obama administration, however, warned of the dangers posed by alien smugglers. In an August 2014 press release, for example, the White House spoke of "the criminal organizations and smuggling rings that are exploiting" illegal entrants, and described the journey of children and adults "from Central America — at the hands of smugglers" as "unbelievably dangerous."
Among the initiatives therein was the:
Dangers Awareness Campaign, an aggressive Spanish language outreach effort and an urgent call to action to community groups, the media, parents and relatives in the U.S. and Central America to not put the lives of children at risk by attempting to illegally cross the southwest border.
That press release stated that the Honduran government had begun "a nationwide media campaign using CBP-provided materials highlighting the dangers of land-based migration". It spoke of how the Salvadoran government had "announced the launch of a six-month, $1.2 million media campaign on the dangers of migration by children and families." Finally, it detailed how the first lady of Guatemala had been "noting the dangers of the journey" to the United States illegally in her public statements, and how she had urged "parents not to send their children illegally to the United States."
And the Obama administration admitted that there was a connection between human smuggling networks and other transnational crimes. On July 25, 2011, the staff of the Obama National Security Council released its "Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security". A section therein captioned "Transnational Organized Crime: A Growing Threat to National and International Security" stated:
Human smuggling is the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation, or illegal entry of a person or persons across an international border, in violation of one or more countries' laws, either clandestinely or through deception, whether with the use of fraudulent documents or through the evasion of legitimate border controls. It is a criminal commercial transaction between willing parties who go their separate ways once they have procured illegal entry into a country. The vast majority of people who are assisted in illegally entering the United States and other countries are smuggled, rather than trafficked. International human smuggling networks are linked to other transnational crimes including drug trafficking and the corruption of government officials. They can move criminals, fugitives, terrorists, and trafficking victims, as well as economic migrants. They undermine the sovereignty of nations and often endanger the lives of those being smuggled.
That document further explained how human smuggling was a large and profitable business:
In its 2010 report The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that the smuggling of persons from Latin America to the United States generated approximately $6.6 billion annually in illicit proceeds for human smuggling networks.
These facts have apparently been lost in the current debate on the president's "zero-tolerance" policy. Instead, they have been replaced by images, such as that of Yanela Denise, an almost two-year-old Honduran national who was encountered with her mother, Sandra Sanchez, by Border Patrol agents in McAllen, Texas, on June 12, 2018, according to the Washington Post. As the paper reported, that "widely shared" photograph "became a symbol of the families pulled apart by the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy at the border," even though the mother and daughter were reportedly never separated.
In fact, the Border Patrol agents were the "good guys" in that picture. As CBS News reported, "the Border Patrol agent involved in the dramatic scene says the photo might be a little misleading." Specifically, the network quotes Border Patrol agent Carlos Ruiz, who it described as "the first to encounter Sandra Sanchez and her daughter after they allegedly crossed the Rio Grande River into Texas illegally." Agent Ruiz explained to a CBS reporter:
"We were patrolling the border. It was after 10 o'clock at night. ... We asked her to set the kid down in front of her, not away from her, she was right in front of her. ... So we can properly search the mother. ... So the kid immediately started crying as she set her down. I personally went up to the mother and asked her 'Are you doing OK? Is the kid OK?' and she said, 'Yes. She's tired and thirsty. It's 11 o'clock at night.'"
Even the reporter who took that picture, John Moore, considered the perils the duo had encountered on their journey. The Washington Post reported:
Moore told The Post's Avi Selk that he ran into the mother and toddler in McAllen, Tex., on the night of June 12. He knew only that they were from Honduras and had been on the road for about a month. "I can only imagine what dangers she'd passed through, alone with the girl," he said.
Nonetheless, Moore asserted, as the Post reported:
"I believe this image has raised awareness to the zero-tolerance policy of this administration. Having covered immigration for Getty Images for 10 years, this photograph for me is part of a much larger story," Moore said, adding later: "The image showed a moment in time at the border, but the emotion in the little girl's distress has ignited a response. As a photojournalist, my job is to inform and report what is happening, but I also think it is important to humanize an issue that is often reported in statistics."
Perhaps if Moore wants to "inform and report what is happening," he should also cross the border to investigate the activities of the "[i]international human smuggling networks" that the Obama National Security Council referenced, if he has not already. As ICE has described the operations of such organizations:
While smugglers most often transport adult males, the number of women, children and family units seeking transport has increased dramatically in recent years. They often find themselves at risk for assault and abuse such as rape, beatings, kidnapping and robbery. Smugglers regularly overcrowd living and sleeping accommodations, and withhold food and water. In addition, individuals who are smuggled may be forced into human trafficking situations upon their arrival in the U.S. or their families may be extorted.
Needless to say, such images would "ignite a response." Unlike USBP, however, it has not been my experience that smuggling gangs allow reporters to go on ride-alongs, but rather generally discourage public disclosure of their illicit activities.
Instead, however, Moore could simply remain in the relative security of the United States and follow the activities of USBP here. For example, on July 5, 2018, CBP reported that it had "arrested nine U.S. citizens for smuggling 64 illegal aliens in five separate events over the weekend." According to the agency's press release:
In the last two months, Border Patrol agents have thwarted 42 smuggling attempts involving tractor trailers, rescuing 406 people from possible death due to soaring temperatures along the Southwest border.
There is a picture included with that press release showing tens of apparently smuggled aliens in what appears to be a trailer, including what seems to be one child (judging from her size and her pink-laced sneakers, as well as the fact that CBP had almost completely blacked out her picture). I would not expect to see this image, however, on the cover of Time magazine.
That CBP press release quotes Acting Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, who explained:
"In addition to securing and protecting our nation's borders, frontline Border Patrol agents are committed to reducing heat-related injuries and preventing deaths along our borders. ... These rescues are a result of stepped-up enforcement at our immigration checkpoints coupled with our search and rescue efforts that are key to preventing unnecessary loss of life."
Or, he could follow in the trail of National Geographic reporter Scott Johnson. In August 2014, Johnson detailed the horrors that were recounted to him by one local, Wyatt Hollek, in Falfurrias, Texas:
Last Thanksgiving, Hollek found a dead woman tied to the tree trunk, her pants and underwear wrapped around her ankles. A Honduran ID card had been neatly placed next to her head, which lay face down in the sand.
"They just keep coming," said Hollek, the 26-year-old manager of the Los Compadres Ranch, which grazes cattle and offers quail hunting. "They all just want to get to Houston, and a lot of them die trying."
That article continues:
For years, ranchers in the area have been watching migrants move north. Many stop and ask for food, water, and rest. Some get lost in the desert or are abandoned by their coyotes and wind up dead.
There is worse in that article, but I will leave it there.
Or, he can take the path followed by NPR's Steve Inskeep, who was interviewed by the network's Arun Rath on "All Things Considered" in March 2014, recounted in a transcript captioned "The Rarely Told Stories Of Sexual Assault Against Female Migrants". Rath asked:
I know that these stories are hard to tell just the way that they are — with undocumented immigrants in America — because people are in a difficult position to go to the law. So what can we know about this?
Well, there are fragments of the story, which we were able to gather as we traveled along the U.S.-Mexico border. We, for example, visited a shelter in northern Mexico — in Nogales, Sonora, the Mexican state of Sonora — where one woman said her entire trip north was effectively a sexual assault. She was brought across the border by a man under false pretenses, taken to the city of Atlanta and, she says, used as a prostitute for years. Now, she's back in northern Mexico. That's where we found her.
We were also in Southern Arizona on an Indian reservation, which is right along the border. And we drove around with Lt. Michael Ford. He is a tribal public safety officer. And we saw the tracks of someone who'd been in the desert; it appeared someone who had walked up to a point and then gotten in a vehicle. You could see the tracks of the vehicle driving away. And they left something behind. It was a condom, which Ford read a certain way. He said he's worked a lot of sex crimes.
The transcript then quotes Lt. Ford:
Females, a lot of times, may carry those just because there's an expectation that there may be an assault somewhere along the way. And they already are kind of prepared that the people who are transporting, they're completely at the will of the people that are — the coyotes who are transporting them.
The transcript then goes on to describe a pharmacy in the northern Mexico city of Altar (which the transcript correctly identifies as a "smuggling town") where female migrants go for birth control to prevent pregnancies in case they are raped. In this vein, reporter Jude Joffe-Block described a conversation that she had with "Maria Salinas, a petite 43-year-old who recently tried crossing with her teenage daughter" in Nogales:
Salinas says at first, she was confused why a coyote at the start of the trip would offer her and other women birth control. Later on, it made sense.
Because the coyotes know what they're going to do in the middle of the desert, she says. Once Salinas started walking with the group, she couldn't keep up. One of the coyotes said he'd wait for her, but only if he could have sex with her daughter. They refused, and he abandoned them. They only survived because they found Border Patrol. [Emphasis added.]
To prevent such horrors, the administration is left with two options: Open the border to any migrant who wishes to come to the United States, or strictly enforce the immigration laws (including the criminal entry provisions) to deter migrants, and in particular UACs and family units, from entering illegally.
The first option will not, however, address the horrors of smuggling that affect non-Mexican foreign nationals (OTMs). For example, the New York Times on June 30, 2018, described the journey undertaken by one Salvadoran national, Christopher Cruz, from Soyapango, El Salvador, to Texas.
The journey was uneventful from El Salvador through Guatemala, but became much more dangerous after Cruz crossed into Mexico. As the Times explained: "He was vulnerable to criminals who might try to kidnap him, police officers seeking bribes and the more robust immigration enforcement that has taken root in recent years in southern Mexico." Cruz was extorted on numerous occasions by Mexican police, hidden in smuggling vehicles, and stashed in a decrepit house in Monterey:
Far from the booming downtown, behind a metal front gate, the windows and doors were shut and barred on the cinder-block house where Mr. Cruz was kept. Trash was everywhere. The small courtyard was filled with mud and debris. Ants and cockroaches crawled indoors. The only water ran brown and unfiltered from the faucet. A terrible smell wafted from the bathroom.
"It was like a prison," Mr. Cruz said.
Migrants like Mr. Cruz had to pay their captors to bring them bottled water or snacks, if they even had the cash to pay prices that were triple those at the local convenience store. Otherwise food arrived only every other day, in the form of a carton of 30 eggs to feed the dozen or so people typically there. At night, Mr. Cruz said, he lay on a thin mat on the floor but couldn't sleep with mice and insects running over him.
Mr. Cruz was stuck there for four days.
From there, he was transported to the Mexican State of Tamaulipas. The Times described the situation there:
Tamaulipas has become known for violent confrontations between organized crime groups, and migrants caught in the middle have been massacred. In the summer of 2010, the corpses of 72 migrants killed by cartel members were discovered there in San Fernando. The message was clear: Crossing into the United States without permission from the drug traffickers, or narcos, who controlled the border territory could be lethal.
Rodolfo Casillas, an expert on illegal migration at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Mexico, estimated that up to $1,000 of the total smuggling price went to pay off the narcos for the "derecho de paso," or right to pass. One migrant testifying in a human-smuggling case in Texas last year told the authorities that he had paid 11,000 pesos, or about $630, for protection from the Zetas criminal organization, and just 1,500 pesos for assistance with the river crossing.
In a stash house in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, migrants who ran out of money were offered the chance to cross as drug mules, which some accepted:
After sending off the migrants with drugs one day, the traffickers returned to the stash house seething. "They were extremely angry," Mr. Cruz recalled, not because the migrants had been arrested but because they had lost their shipment of drugs.
With money provided by relatives, Cruz attempted to cross the river. On his third try, he was successful, meeting up with an SUV that was also carrying cocaine on the Texas site of the border. He was transferred to a different car and taken to McAllen, Texas, where he was kept in another stash house. The Times described the conditions therein:
At the stash house in McAllen, the caretakers took away phones and even migrants' shoes so they wouldn't run away. "One particular person, they beat him up and kicked him because he wasn't paying attention," Mr. Cruz said.
He estimated there were 70 people inside. They were given no food and were not allowed to speak to one another or even move without permission. Neighbors in border regions can be quick to report suspected stash houses. More than a third of all those busted by Customs and Border Protection last year — 140 out of 407 in the Southwest — were in the Rio Grande Valley, where Mr. Cruz was.
From that house, he was transported north:
Mr. Cruz was brought to one last stash house, stripped to just his boxer shorts in a room "with no electricity, no light coming through, no windows and one big bed with four men," as he described it, essentially a hostage until the final payments were made. Two days passed.
Only when the final installment arrived in Mexico could Mr. Cruz go. "They gave me my clothes to put back on, and they blindfolded me again," he said.
He was dropped off at a gas station, where he met his uncle. All told, the journey left him some $12,300 in debt. Despite the privations that he faced throughout the trip, the Times reported that:
Mr. Cruz looked ahead to earning enough money to begin the cycle again, paying for his son, his sister and his grandmother to join him in the United States. "I dream of bringing them over here," he said.
If migrants believe that they will be free in the United States at the end of an arduous and perilous journey at the hands of smuggling organizations, they will, like Cruz, take those risks, even at the risk of the unspeakable maltreatment described above of them and their children.
It is to the New York Times' credit that they published an unvarnished portrait of the dangers posed by smugglers to OTMs as they transit through Mexico. As a follow-up, perhaps that paper could follow a mother and her child on that same arduous trek. It would complete the picture that was taken on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas, and broadcast around the world.