The number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh jumping the border to sneak into the U.S. is on pace to double in the Laredo region of Texas, officials said Wednesday, in what is the latest worrying surge of migration from a country with terrorism dangers.
The illegal immigrants pay up to $27,000 to international smuggling organizations to ferry them from Asia into the western hemisphere, where they make their way up through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border, where they’re led across the Rio Grande.
Another four Bangladeshis were nabbed in the Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector on Wednesday, bringing the total through a little more than six months of the fiscal year to 188. That’s already more than the 181 apprehended in all of fiscal year 2017. In 2016, the sector saw just one.
The increase is worrisome both because of the presence of Islamist terror networks in Bangladesh, and because the immigrants are being coached on what to say when caught at the border, depriving agents of good intelligence.
“It’s definitely a Transnational Criminal Organization that’s doing that networking,” said Scott Good, acting deputy chief patrol agent for the Laredo Sector, who said the TCO, as authorities refer to such syndicates, facilitates the entire trip from start to finish.
TCOs dominate smuggling across the southwest border, and are increasingly a threat when it comes to so-called “special interest countries.”
“The cartels have this capability to move people from anywhere in the world. So if it’s not Bangladesh, where else could it be?” Laredo Assistant Chief Gabriel Acosta said.
Indeed, one of those other networks became clear Wednesday when the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Nasif Barakat and a TCO he operates from Syria, which authorities said smuggled “hundreds” of people from Syria and and Lebanon into the U.S. via the southwest border.
They paid about $20,000 per person to be smuggled, Treasury said, and the money went to pay bribes, create fake documents such as European passports, and arrange transportation. Their standard route went from Syria and Lebanon to either Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, and from there to Brazil, from where they would make the journey north.
The Washington Times has also reported on a network operated by Sharafat Ali Khan, a citizen of Pakistan who moved illegal immigrants from Asia to Brazil and then up to the U.S. between 2014 and 2016.
Khan, who pleaded guilty last year but is appealing his sentence, charged his customers up to $15,000 each, according to testimony in his court case.
Federal authorities said Khan specialized in illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — though his specialty was his home country. After his arrest, authorities said they saw a noticeable drop in illegal immigrants from that country.
One of the people smuggled in by Khan’s network was listed in the FBI’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database as having suspicious relations.
Khan instructed his clients to claim asylum if they were caught by Border Patrol agents.
That’s also true for many of the Bangladeshi migrants, who end up making asylum claims after the Border Patrol processes them, Deputy Chief Good said.
Reached by phone Wednesday, the Bangladesh Embassy’s press minister referred calls to the embassy’s consular minister, who did not respond to messages left on his office and cell phones.
Bangladeshis, like other migrants jumping the border, are increasingly taking advantage of generous asylum laws that give them a foothold in the U.S. while their cases drag on — in some cases for three years.
Indeed, even though the number of Bangladeshi migrants being caught increased in recent years, the percentage being deported dropped.
Deputy Chief Good said the TCOs have coached the migrants to deny that they’re Muslim and to insist they don’t have any associations with terrorism. He said they stick closely to that script, which ends up hurting chances to learn about more potential threats.
“They might be overlooking that their uncle is associated with a terrorist organization and we could actually glean some information,” he said. “The story’s almost identical every time we interview people.”
Also hindering efforts is the language barrier. Agents have to use a translation service. Deputy Chief Good says they’ve requested help from headquarters in Washington, and have also reached out to the Defense Department, figuring that if they had someone in person who could speak the language they could ask more probing questions.
The Laredo Sector accounts for about 60 percent of all Bangladeshi migrants caught sneaking into the U.S.
Deputy Chief Good said he needs more roads, fencing, brush clearing, and in particular more cameras — they only have 22 towers to cover their 171 miles of the border — to gain situational awareness of who’s coming.
He said he wants to get ahead of the issue, hoping to head off a potential surge as the neighboring Rio Grande Valley Sector makes progress in cutting its numbers.
“I don’t want to wait until there’s a huge influx,” he said. “We want to make sure the flanks are covered.”