The high temperatures haven’t stopped human smuggling activity at the Arizona-Mexico border. In fact, federal authorities say it's increasing and that the majority of human smugglers are U.S. citizens.
“The non-United States Citizen arrests that we made for alien smuggling only makes up about 10 to 20% of those total arrests that we made,” said Robert Bushell with the Border Patrol Tucson Sector.
Agent Bushell says U.S. citizens smuggling people from the border has been an ongoing issue even before the pandemic. He says the recruitment happens online.
“Smugglers, be it, drug smugglers, human smugglers will go to any length.”
Human smugglers trying anything to get away with a federal crime is the biggest concern for agents like Bushell and Homeland Security Investigations agent, Lon Wiegand.
“Oftentimes, large groups are placed in trucks in the back, and with the heat exceeding 115 degrees, the inside of those vehicles can be deadly,” said Wiegand.
Wiegand says, for smugglers, people are a means to make a profit.
“So typically, individuals that cross from Mexico into the United States would pay about $2,000. Now we're seeing payments in excess of $8,000 to $10,000,” stated Wiegand.
Ten thousand dollars is in fact the same amount the U.S. citizen driving this vehicle confessed they were paid to transport 17 undocumented immigrants from Douglas to the Valley, according to the report by the DPS trooper enforcing the traffic stop.
In the same report, the trooper documented using "smell" to detect the undocumented immigrants.
The driver was let go with only two traffic citations, even though he admitted being a potential human smuggler. Why?
On April 16, DPS said they called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol to report the 17 undocumented immigrants, but both agencies declined to respond.
Border Patrol said that due to the distance from the border they referred the incident to ICE. However, ICE said they told the trooper they were unable to immediately respond, but once their officers arrived the occupants of the vehicle were gone.
The trooper’s report doesn’t say if ICE was notified about the driver confessing to being a human smuggler. It also doesn’t say why DPS’s own border strike force was not called in to assist.
The special unit was created six years ago by Governor Ducey to “deter, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations that breach the border in their quest to set up business in our state.”
“I think it's important to recognize that the Attorney General issued an opinion that authorizes the strike force to investigate violations of federal criminal law,” said Danny Ortega, a civil rights lawyer in Phoenix.
Ortega says calling the Border Strike Force would have been the appropriate step to take during this traffic stop.
“That would have been the easiest thing in my opinion for DPS to do once you have this individual admitting to smuggling for payment.”
In a statement to ABC15, DPS said:
“The Border Strike Force was not called out because no reasonable suspicion or probable cause existed to detain or arrest the driver for a crime under Arizona law. Detaining the driver further would have violated the driver's constitutional rights.”
Some may ask, doesn’t this send the wrong message to human smugglers?
“The manner in which DPS handled this is sending the wrong message about how we deal with these smugglers and clearly these smugglers must be dealt with from a criminal standpoint as opposed to the people that they're bringing over who are simply violating civil law, not criminal law,” stated Ortega.
According to records, the confessed human smuggler from this April traffic stop did show up to court, for no insurance and for driving with a suspended driver’s license.