- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2019

President Trump’s border wall may eventually stop illegal immigrants, but right now it has created a new way for them to sneak into the U.S. thanks to the flurry of construction in Southern California.

The Washington Times has learned that migrants are blending into the construction crews building the wall, even donning orange work vests to fit in with the surroundings. The smugglers are using the vests too and going so far as to “clone” construction company trucks to try to fool Border Patrol agents.

It’s impossible to know how many times the tactic has been successful, but The Times has uncovered at least three cases in the past couple of months in which agents sniffed out the ruses and nabbed people involved.

“The current construction of the U.S./Mexico International Boundary Fence (IBF) has helped smugglers blend in with legitimate construction vehicles in this area,” agent Anna Davalos told a judge in an affidavit support smuggling charges in one of the cases, an Oct. 15 attempt in the desert west of Calexico.

Agents told The Times they expected it. They saw the same thing a decade ago during a round of fence-building under President George W. Bush, and before that when parts of California were first fenced off from Mexico.

Each time, after fencing was constructed, illegal immigration in those areas dropped. Agents say that is what they expect this time too, though for now Customs and Border Protection acknowledged the construction is causing opportunities “to exploit real or perceived vulnerabilities.”

Mr. Trump’s quest to dramatically expand the existing border wall is likely to create plenty of opportunity for construction-related mischief.

Should the courts and Congress cooperate, the president said, he expects some 400 miles of wall to be built from 2017 to 2020. Some of that will be new, and other sections will replace outdated fencing.

So far, most of the construction has been in California and western Arizona, where the government owns much of the land and building is relatively easy. But the administration earlier this month announced commencement of dozens of miles in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas.

So far, no new mileage of the border has been fenced in. All construction has been replacement of existing walls or vehicle barriers, or adding a secondary wall set back from the primary border wall. Between the walls is a no-go zone, where migrants are more easily captured.

In at least one of the cases The Times uncovered, a fake construction vehicle was used to gain access to that no man’s land.

CBP, which oversees the Border Patrol, insisted there are ways to deal with those situations.

“While CBP can’t disclose specific strategies we use, we can say that through situational awareness, intelligence capabilities, and rapid response we prevent these smuggling attempts from succeeding,” the agency said.

One of those tactics is asking legitimate construction trucks to hang tags from their rearview mirrors so agents can quickly tell whether the traffic is authentic.

Lack of a tag was how agents nabbed Angelica Jessica Lopez, the woman charged in the Oct. 15 smuggling run. Court documents say Ms. Lopez was caught with three illegal immigrants from Mexico, who paid $7,000 apiece to be smuggled into the country.

In a case a month earlier, agents spotted three illegal immigrants crossing in an area that the Border Patrol calls “Jonny Wolf’s,” near the Otay Mesa border crossing point.

A remote surveillance camera spotted four people in orange work vests jumping the border. Agents said it was “an attempt to blend in with the construction crews.”

One person, presumably the foot guide, returned to Mexico while three others climbed into a truck that had been waiting for them. Agents stopped the truck and arrested the driver, who said he was getting $800 for the smuggling run. The three migrants had paid $7,000 apiece.

Also in September, agents in San Diego tracked a Ford F-250 truck tricked out to look like a construction company vehicle as it cruised along the border wall construction zone near the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Agents said they suspected the truck had made previous runs, and they managed to stop it this time as it drove out of a restricted construction zone. They arrested the driver, who was a juvenile they didn’t identify, and a passenger. Both were wearing orange work vests.

Inside the truck’s bed, which was covered by a shell, agents found 22 illegal immigrants, some of whom said they feared for their life from overcrowding and lack of seats, seat belts or water.

Chris Harris, who recently retired from the Border Patrol in San Diego, said construction crews will sometimes help agents sniff out impostors trying to hide among the flurry of work.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Mr. Harris said. “But when you realize they’re trying to smuggle narcotics or worse, then it becomes much more, ‘You don’t want to get burned.’”

Cloning is an age-old tactic for border smugglers.

Fake FedEx and UPS delivery trucks have been used, as have fake — and real — ambulances.

In one case over the summer, agents at a highway checkpoint in South Texas stopped an ambulance that claimed to be transporting a patient. The driver’s nervous behavior tipped off the agent on duty. When the agent began to ask questions the story fell apart. At the same time, another agent’s dog began to alert on the vehicle as carrying drugs or migrants.

They discovered six illegal immigrants in the back of the ambulance, including one who was pretending to be a patient, strapped to a stretcher with a neck brace, an oxygen mask and an intravenous drip, according to court documents.

The driver admitted to agents that he was being paid $2,000 to drive the six from McAllen to Houston, and his co-conspirator said he was getting an additional $1,000. Two of the smuggled migrants told agents they had paid the co-conspirator $3,500 apiece as the final installments in their smuggling fees.

Other fakes have included a bogus adult-care van in Texas in July 2018 and a bogus paramedics truck a month later.

While some of the cloned vehicles are good fakes, they don’t often stand up to close scrutiny.

Agents said smugglers will time their runs to coincide with Border Patrol shift changes, figuring they may be able to fool the surveillance cameras and, with agents either headed back to base or from base to the field, won’t have to survive an up-close examination.

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

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