Friday, November 14, 2014

The Business of Immigrant Smuggling

I recently finished serving on a Federal jury. The defendant was accused of being part of an immigrant smuggling ring and I learned several things from the immigrants called as witnesses.

Immigrant Smuggling Is a Billion Dollar Business
In my case the rate to be guided across the US-Mexico border on a night-long hike to be picked up at the other end is between $3,000 and $6,000 (it really pays to negotiate the fee), payment due upon delivery. In 2012, about 270,000 Mexicans were estimated to have crossed the border illegally, which means payments were about one billion dollars. If you consider the rest of Latin America that amount more than doubles. The average income for a worker in Mexico is 280 peso a day. That's about $20US. These immigrant smugglers charge up to a year's income to bring one person into the United States.

Mother Jones reported in 2010 that immigrants from Thailand paid between $11,000 and $23,000 to be smuggled into the US. Unskilled workers in Thailand get paid about $120 per month in Thailand. These smugglers charge upwards of eight years of income for their services.

The Smuggling Chain Is Complex
Recruiters wait outside the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana seeking customers. Casa del Migrante is a Catholic charity that helps care for people who have been caught by the US Border Patrol and dumped back at the border with few if any resources. The recruiters negotiate a price for transit. The immigrants then take a taxi to a remote stretch of road in the desert where they are gathered into small groups. Guides lead them on an all night hike through rugged terrain. En route the guides will abandon them with instructions to seek a predominate landmark (in my case well lit wind turbines) where they will be met by vehicles (in my case two pick up trucks). The immigrants were not told what would happen next, what was the next link in the chain.

Sometimes the Next Link Is Servitude
After the case was decided, when I felt free to speculate, I began wondering what the next link is. How do the smugglers insure payment? That same Mother Jones article noted that the occasional answer is indentured servitude. Immigrants might be forced to work at farms the smugglers supply workers for until their debts are paid.

The Immigrants Are Sympathetic People
One immigrant witness was trying to be reunited with his wife living in San Diego. Another, Francisco Beltran, had spent 22 of his 28 years living in the United States. He had been deported a couple years ago and was simply trying to return to the only home he had ever known. None of the immigrants were on trial, had they been I would probably have voted acquittal.

The Defendant Was Not So Sympathetic
The defendant was charged with driving one of the transport trucks and being part of an organized smuggling operation. He did not testify, which is his right. His lawyer offered no witnesses, also his right. His lawyer confined his case to a closing argument where he urged the jury to imagine some alternative reason why his client had stopped to pick up five people who had been hiding in the underbrush and told them to hide on the floor of the truck as he drove off. The defendant never asked them where they wanted to go, he knew where to take them.

Had the defendant been engaged in civil disobedience and altruistically trying to help immigrants build better lives I might have gotten all nullification in the court's face. But he didn't and the evidence clearly shown the defendant was part of a commercial operation exploiting the immigrants for personal financial gain.

I joined the other jurors in finding the defendant guilty on all counts.

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