It began with a contraband-sniffing dog at a Border Patrol checkpoint who sniffed out a truck with 63 illegal immigrants at a highway checkpoint near Laredo, and ended with federal agents rescuing 43 other illegal immigrants from a nearby stash house where they were waiting for the next load-up.
That Aug. 7 bust is becoming increasingly common in Texas, where agents say they’re finding more stash houses packed with people — a sign of things going wrong, yet also very right.
More stash houses means there’s a glut of migrants who have managed to sneak across the border, but it also means the smugglers are having a tricky time getting them deeper into the U.S., officials said. That’s created a pileup of migrants in U.S. border areas.
“What this shows us as operators is we’re having an impact,” Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz told The Washington Times. “We’re forcing them to do business a little differently.”
As of late last month, the Border Patrol said it had already detected 143 stash houses in south Texas this year.
While often unsanitary and potentially dangerous at any time, the stash houses are particularly high-risk during coronavirus, with dozens of unrelated people crowded inside and social distancing impossible — much less antithetical to the migrant smugglers’ own interests.
Chief Ortiz called them a “petri dish” for possible virus exposure.
Yet the stash house increase is also a signal that the coronavirus pause in illegal immigration is wearing off.
Unauthorized crossings, measured by those nabbed, had cratered in April and May, with Border Patrol agents arresting only about 600 migrants a day along the southern border. By August it was more than 1,500 a day, the highest in a year.
The composition of the flow has also changed.
Last year, it was parents and children, mostly from Central America. Most of them also wanted to be caught, since it gave them a chance to take advantage of lax policies toward families and non-Mexicans.
Now, illegal immigration along the southern border is chiefly single adults, mostly from Mexico. And they’re trying to evade.
“Even a global pandemic will not stop them,” Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said Friday, delivering an update from the border in Texas.
A typical journey into Texas can begin in Central America or Mexico, involves a stay at a stash house on the Mexican side, floating over the Rio Grande, then being taken to a stash house to wait until the smugglers can get a load of people by the highway checkpoints that the Border Patrol mans on key routes north.
Some migrants report being moved from stash house to stash house here in the U.S. as they wait for their window to head deeper into the country.
Stash house operators make perhaps $100 per person. Sometimes they use trailers or motel rooms, and other times they’ll rent houses. Some operators even cook and clean for the migrants.
One tactic is to have illegal immigrants themselves run the stash houses. Smugglers sometimes offer them a discount, cutting thousands of dollars off their own smuggling fees, in exchange for a month’s work. Other times, the payment is just cash.
That was the case in the Aug. 7 bust in Laredo, where one of the migrants was getting $200 a week to run to the store for food and water.
Sometimes stash house operators charge their own “release” fees, effectively holding the migrants hostage — occasionally at gunpoint.
“They really are looking at this migrant population as a commodity. They’re not concerned for their welfare and their wellbeing,” Chief Ortiz said.
And now there’s the health risks, not just to the migrants but to agents that respond, and to the community that surrounds them, the chief said.
Migrants pay generously to be put through all of that.
Mexican migrants rescued from a stash house in southern Texas on Aug. 24 told agents that they had paid $9,000 apiece to be snuck into the U.S.
One Guatemalan caught at another stash house on Aug. 31 paid $8,000. He told agents he was trying to get to New Jersey. Still another Guatemalan at a stash house busted on Aug. 17 paid $6,000 to reach the U.S., and owed another $4,200 to reach his final destination of Massachusetts.
Stash houses had been most prevalent in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, but they’ve migrated up the river to Laredo.
Homeland Security had seen an increase in truckloads of migrants being smuggled north around Laredo. They deployed hundreds of CBP officers, who usually man ports of entry, to help inspect cars coming through the highway checkpoints.
Chief Ortiz said they’ve been so successful that the migrants are starting to create a backlog.
“I do think there are some of these stash houses starting to stack up,” he said.
He predicted smugglers will soon shift again, moving operations further north and upriver, toward Del Rio.
Almost all of the new arrivals who are caught are immediately expelled across the border under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order during the pandemic.
But many of them are immediately turning around and trying again, raising questions of how many are getting through the second or third time.
Chief Ortiz said the coronavirus is helping spur some of the crossings.
For one things, the slower pace of the last few months meant pent-up demand. Then there are people looking to flee their home countries as the virus spreads there, pushing still more people north.
Experts said the ones that are getting through end up in communities across the country — and if they contracted COVID-19 along the way, they can risk becoming hotspots at their new destinations.
Most of the cases along the border, though, are from Americans and legal permanent residents returning to the U.S. for treatment, said Ken Cuccinelli, who as the acting deputy secretary is the No. 2 man at Homeland Security.
He told The Washington Times last month that the cooperation that had existed between the U.S. and Latin American partners, and which helped solve the family surge, has frayed during the pandemic.
“We really need Mexico to step up, and the Northern Triangle countries who frankly have become a lot more lax,” he said. “They’re really letting us down in terms of the level of cooperation and partnership.”
Key sending countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador aren’t taking back their deportees as quickly as they were, and Mr. Cuccinelli said Mexico needs to do more to police its own southern border to keep the migrants from arriving here.