The choppy video taken by a “concerned citizen” showed illegal immigrants in a brazen dash up a San Diego beach in broad daylight, having just taken a motorboat across the international fence and up to Torrey Pines State Beach, where they ditched the boat and ran for waiting cars — one of them a red Pontiac Aztec.
A day later, Border Patrol agents caught up with the Aztec and found one of the illegal immigrants in the back seat.
In the driver’s seat, meanwhile, was Alejandro Castro, a Dreamer who had been approved for tentative legal status under President Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).
Mr. Castro is one of four Dreamers who were arrested in separate alien-smuggling raids in just one week at the end of last month, spanning the border from San Diego to Laredo.
“I hope that Congress is paying attention to these cases,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “Here we have people who were granted this extraordinary act of generosity in the form of a work permit and de facto legal status, and who are thanking us by using it to facilitate more law-breaking.”
“Not that all the people with DACA are like this, but we should not be so naive to assume that all of them are wonderful,” Ms. Vaughan said.
In Mr. Castro’s case, he was getting $1,500 to drive two men, along with his cousin, who was being paid to smuggle five others. They called it “easy money,” according to court documents.
They held the men overnight, awaiting confirmation from a man known as “El Vaquero” whom their families had paid the smugglers’ fees. Mr. Castro was delivering the last of the seven illegal immigrants when he was stopped.
Until he was caught, Mr. Castro could have been one of millions of Dreamers in line for full legal status and even U.S. citizenship under the plans Congress is about to start debating.
Nearly 800,000 young adult illegal immigrants have been approved for DACA since it began in 2012. Some got other legal status while others let their status lapse, leaving some 690,000 still protected by DACA as of late last year, when President Trump announced a phaseout of the program.
Dreamers have long been viewed as the most sympathetic cases in the immigration debate, portrayed as victims of their parents’ decisions, who have gone on to make something of themselves despite the headwinds. There are likely tens of thousands of those cases.
One of them is Edder Martinez, proclaimed the “Dreamer of the Day” on Friday by TheDream.US, a scholarship fund set up to help the illegal immigrants with DACA be able to afford college.
Mr. Martinez said he didn’t discover he was in the country illegally until he was a high school senior in 2007 and Arizona state law prohibited him from getting in-state tuition as an illegal immigrant. It wasn’t until he got DACA, and his new tentative legal status meant he could pay in-state rates at Arizona State University, that he was able to enroll.
“Because of DACA, I own a car, I have a mortgage, and I have a steady job with benefits and a 401(k),” he said in a statement from TheDream.US. “I am able to have a Social Security card. I have the ability to work legally and pay taxes. I have a driver’s license, and I can pay in-state tuition. DACA has allowed me to pursue my dreams, unencumbered. For this I am eternally grateful.”
But contrast that with Saul Rodea Castro, another DACA recipient in Arizona whom agents arrested last week after stopping a Ford F-150 pickup and found him driving four illegal immigrants.
The immigrants said they paid $8,000 a person to be smuggled and told agents that Mr. Rodea was the pickup man they had been told to look for once they crossed the Colorado River in Yuma.
Another Dreamer was arrested two days later in Texas on smuggling charges, after a state trooper spotted a passenger in his car not wearing a seat belt. The driver, DACA recipient David Alejandro Luna-Martinez, admitted that both of his passengers were illegal immigrants he was smuggling.
The fourth case came back in San Diego the same day Mr. Castro was nabbed. Homeland Security said Ricardo Fajardo-Cardenas was snared at an interstate checkpoint and admitted he was acting as a scout and relaying Border Patrol operations details to another man doing the smuggling.
“When a DACA recipient commits a crime, they are stripped of their protections. DACA is a benefit, not a right,” said Katie Waldman, spokeswoman for Homeland Security. “DHS is cracking down on criminal aliens to ensure the safety of our communities — which includes anyone in our country illegally who commits a crime.”
It’s likely that far more Dreamers are like Mr. Martinez, the scholar, than Mr. Fajardo, Mr. Castro, Mr. Rodea and Mr. Luna.
One 2017 survey administered by Tom K. Wong, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, found 91 percent of DACA recipients said they were working, and 5 percent said they even started their own businesses. Many were working illegally before DACA, but after winning work permits as part of the program their average hourly wage rose from $10.29 to $17.46.
But pro-crackdown analysts counter that respondents to those polls are likely to be the best and brightest, not representative of the broader DACA population.
What is certain is that only a small fraction of DACA recipients have been ousted from the program for gang membership or for criminal charges or convictions.
The most recent numbers, through Sept. 30, showed about 2,100 people had been ousted from the program since 2012, out of nearly 800,000 people approved over the same period.
Still, agents said it’s not clear what is going on with the spate of arrests in succession but it could just be that they are paying closer attention in the middle of the debate over Dreamers’ legal status in Washington.
Christopher J. Harris, secretary of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council in San Diego, said some Dreamers are the excellent college students and high achievers portrayed in the news, but not all of them are.
“We don’t know what they are until we pull them over,” he said. “It’s just being more aware of the narrative we’re hearing that DACA and Dreamers don’t do anything wrong.”