EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mexican drug cartels are often blamed for funneling migrants to the U.S. border. But once those foreigners looking for a better life make it over the border fence or across the burning desert, it is up to a small army of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to make sure they get to their destination.
These individuals – truck drivers, the unemployed and even high school students – get paid as little at $100 to drive migrants to local hotels and stash houses and thousands of dollars to deliver them to their final destination, interviews with experts and a review of pending cases in El Paso federal court show.
“It is usually the idea of fast money that draws people in. One-hundred dollars doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’re able to make five, six quick trips a day, that’s not too bad,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., associate director for the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Pay hinges on distance and risk. You’re not going to make $100 driving someone to Dallas or Houston, you’re going to make a lot more than that.”
The U.S. Border Patrol last month encountered more than 180,000 migrants who climbed over the wall, forded the Rio Grande or were deep into open desert all along the Southwest border. But for every migrant in custody, some 1,000 others “get away” daily.
That is where the locals come in.
El Paso’s Border Highway literally runs next to 18- to 30-foot steel bollard border wall. On a recent March evening, U.S. Border Patrol agents witnesses several migrants come over near the Midway Drive exit.
The agents rounded up the unauthorized entrants and noticed a cellphone. One agent received permission to examine the phone and called a number. Posing as the migrant, the smuggler on the other end told him to walk toward the houses and wait for a car to pick him and his companions up.
Court records show a red SUV arrived at a pre-arranged intersection and the driver yelled at several Border Patrol agents dressed as civilians and stating that they just crossed the border illegally to “get in, get in, idiots!”
The driver identified as Jesus Illarramendi, a legal permanent resident of the U.S., later told the agent a man named “Marin” offered him $100 to ferry each migrant to a home near Emerson Street, court records show. Illarramendi allegedly told the agents he previously was paid $400 for transporting a total of four migrants to a similar location.
Illarramendi is scheduled to enter a plea this month.
In addition to homes, local apartment complexes and hotels are popular spots for migrant stash houses.
On Jan. 27, agents with the Border Patrol anti-smuggling unit received a tip and set up surveillance at a Red Roof Inn in West El Paso. The agents observed a U.S. citizen, Alejandro Martinez, park his car near a room from which one man, and then another came out to join him.
The agents moved in and established the newcomers were undocumented migrants. Knocking next on room 111, the agents found two more migrants sitting on the bed and four hiding in the bathroom. They also encountered a second American.
Jessica Cisneros told the agents a man named “Soshu” asked her to house the migrants for free in her hotel room and that she agreed because “it was cold and she felt bad for them,” court records show.
Martinez, on the other hand, told the agents he was going to be paid $450 for transporting the migrants. He allegedly said he needed to provide for himself and his daughter.
A few hundred dollars are hardly worth a federal prison sentence, but Manjarrez said “under the table cash” is always appealing to those who don’t have any. Also, family and friend connections are an important draw.
“It’s usually never a stranger. It’s a family member or a friend that gets you involved. It may be just an acquaintance, but it’s always someone they halfway trust,” Manjarrez said.
The stash house operators also are often locals.
Last November, Border Patrol agents set up surveillance at a Downtown El Paso bus station where smuggling activity was allegedly suspected.
A woman identified as Emilia Gamino Barron allegedly walked into the bus station with five individuals “walking in a straight line” behind her, court documents show. The woman exited the bus station and went to a gray Nissan Versa where additional individuals waited.
Four of the five men then got out and walked toward the bus station. Border Patrol agents moved and detained a total of seven citizens of Ecuador and two from Mexico and arrested Barron and the driver of the Nissan, William Orin Howard – both of them U.S. citizens.
The woman invoked her right to an attorney, but Howard told agents Barron and her boyfriend had called to offer him $100 for driving the migrants from an apartment complex in El Paso to the bus station, court records show. Howard allegedly told the agents that “he knew it was wrong but needed the money.”
Manjarrez said running a migrant stash house on the border isn’t expensive. Smugglers usually rent a single unfurnished house or apartment on a month-to-month basis. A quick internet search turned up several two-bedroom rentals not far from Downtown under $700 a month.
“It’s very low overhead. Let’s say you find an older place in Central El Paso, which is not that hard, so you’re not talking about a lot of money,” said the former El Paso and Tucson sector Border Patrol chief. “It’s a low investment compared to the return.”
The nature of a stash house makes it difficult to detect – most often than not, the place will be empty – and managers aren’t liable unless authorities can show they knew or should have reasonably known criminal activity was taken place there.
“How does law enforcement prove knowledge? The government has to prove knowledge, furtherance and gain,” Manjarrez said. “It becomes really hard when the (manager) says, ‘I’m just renting an apartment,’ and he may or not live on the premises.”
The last stage of migrant smuggling on the U.S. side of the border is the out-of-town transportation. The smugglers not only have to avoid being stopped over casual traffic infractions, but also sort a network of U.S. Border Patrol highway checkpoints in the Southwest.
On the morning of Jan. 13, an off-duty Border Patrol agent noticed a group of people standing outside a Hobby Lobby in West El Paso that would not be opening for another two hours.
He stayed in the parking lot and watched two men and a woman carrying a baby walk toward a semi pulling a flatbed with copper plates parked at a nearby Sam’s Club. The agent saw the three adults with the baby climb into the cab of the truck, which then headed toward Interstate 10.
About 100 miles later, the truck came upon the Border Patrol’s Sierra Blanca, Texas highway checkpoint. The driver, Pedro Antonio Ortiz, allegedly became nervous and did not consent to a search of the vehicle, court records show. He was sent to an area known as secondary inspection where a police dog alerted Border Patrol to the presence of people in the cab.
Agents ordered the three adults with the baby to exit, and confirmed they were unauthorized migrants. After that, court records show Ortiz allegedly told a Homeland Security Investigations agent that a childhood friend asked him to transport the migrants for a $3,000 fee. Ortiz allegedly told HSI he had previously transported a single migrant for his friend and was still owed $1,000 for that.