America’s reopening after the coronavirus crisis brought a surge of human and drug smuggling to the southern border in May along with a worrying rise in the most abusive smuggling tactics.
Border Patrol agents have reported catching a striking number of semitractor trailers, some packed with as many as five dozen illegal immigrants, roaring along border highways and trying to sneak past checkpoints to get to the interior.
The going rate for smuggling, after dipping earlier this year, has shot back up to $15,000 per person in some cases.
The dangers of smuggling also were brought into stark view after a high-speed chase in Arizona on June 2 that ended when a fleeing 17-year-old smuggler swerved to avoid a tire deflation device, lost control of the Honda minivan he was driving and rolled the vehicle, according to Border Patrol agents.
The 17-year-old died, as did one of the four illegal immigrants he was driving. Another was stuck on life support, and one suffered a broken leg.
“Migrants should never listen to the false promises of smuggling organizations, who don’t care about their health and safety,” said Mark A. Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. “Every day, we fight the smugglers who abuse, exploit and treat immigrants as a commodity for their own profit — often leaving them behind to die.”
Border Patrol agents apprehended 21,475 people trying to sneak across the border in May. CBP officers at ports of entry encountered another 1,643 migrants attempting to enter without authorization.
The 23,118 combined is up from 16,789 in April — a 38% increase.
But it’s well below the record-setting May 2019, when 144,116 illegal immigrants were nabbed at the border, including 132,856 caught by Border Patrol agents alone.
More stunning is the change in the kinds of people arriving at the border.
In May 2019, the Border Patrol apprehended 95,961 parents and children — an all-time record for any month.
In the same month this year, they caught just 1,931 parents and children — a drop of 98%. That is up slightly from April, but the improvement is clear.
Homeland security officials say cutting those numbers helped avoid a humanitarian catastrophe that would have resulted with the coronavirus crisis.
During the height of the surge last year, CBP holding facilities had 20,000 people in custody. Some were held for days on end, creating the perfect environment for the spread of disease. Now, the numbers are in the low hundreds, and 96% of the migrants are processed within two hours, CBP says.
Last year, most of the parents and children were Central Americans. Most of those coming across the border now are single adult Mexicans, who are easily returned to their home country.
While the pace of illegal immigration ticked up, CBP said, the flow of illegal drugs soared. Cocaine seizures doubled in May, and methamphetamine, marijuana and fentanyl seizures all rose.
Mr. Morgan said those are all reasons to push forward with President Trump’s border wall.
“Wherever we have built a new border wall system, drug and human smuggling activities have decreased,” he said.
As the pace of illegal activity picks up, so has the pace of prosecutions of those caught smuggling. A Border Patrol highway checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas, has been particularly busy.
On May 28, agents there found 57 illegal immigrants in a trailer. The driver of the truck told agents it was his fifth such trip, and he was getting $1,000 each time.
Later that day, agents stopped a truck with eight illegal immigrants piled on beds in the truck cab’s sleeper area. The driver told agents he was getting $17,000 to smuggle them to San Antonio.
A day later, agents at the same checkpoint stopped a truck with 58 illegal immigrants in its trailer. The driver told agents he was paying off a debt he had incurred in Mexico and that his family would be in danger if he didn’t make the drive.
The first incident with the 57 illegal immigrants turned into something bigger. A week later, Homeland Security Investigations agents spotted a suspicious truck and determined that it came from the same load-up site.
Forty-six illegal immigrants were found in the trailer of this truck, and the drivers told agents they were getting paid $8,000 to drive the truck to San Antonio.
During the coronavirus crisis, agents gave some smugglers a break.
One man stopped in early May with eight illegal immigrants in his truck at the checkpoint in Sarita, Texas, was released without charges. But when agents nabbed him again on June 3 with 19 illegal immigrants, they didn’t look the other way.
As he was being led from his holding cell and fingerprinted, agents said, he insisted they would let him go this time, too.
Instead, he was charged with smuggling.
He was released Thursday on a $75,000 bond, secured by a $2,000 cash payment.