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Tight Border Aids People-Smuggling

Case in New York shows how a tighter Mexican border may lead to exploitation

Maria Delgado paid a "coyote" - a smuggler - $800 to bring her brother from Mexico into the US. He left home, but never arrived and has not been heard from since. That was 10 years ago.

"The coyotes are dangerous, very dangerous," says Ms. Delgado of Houston. "They said my brother didn't come with them, but I don't believe that."

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Immigrant smuggling is on the rise in the United States, dramatically. Arrests of coyotes trying to help illegal aliens steal across the Southwest border doubled between 1995 and 1996, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

As this week's discovery of more than 60 deaf and mute Mexicans in New York shows, it can be a fairly low-risk, high-return trade. Los Mutidos, as they are known, were smuggled in and allegedly forced to sell trinkets on the streets and subways of New York in apparent slavery. Profits were pocketed by their captors.

Ironically, experts say, the dramatic increase in smuggling is a direct result of increased enforcement and the crackdown on illegal immigration. The number of Southwest border patrol agents has jumped from 4,000 in 1993 to nearly 7,000 today. As it becomes more difficult for individuals to cross the border on their own, they increasingly turn to coyotes, as Los Mutidos did, for help.

"The case in New York vividly demonstrates the horrific human rights abuses - including holding people in slavery - that are an inherent byproduct of the smuggling trade," says Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman in Washington.

Traditionally, the relationship between individual illegal immigrants and border patrol agents has been fairly passive and cooperative. When an illegal immigrants are caught walking across the border, typically they just sent back across the border to try again another day. That dynamic changes dramatically when organized smugglers are brought into the equation.

"The coyote is in principle doing things that are more risky and difficult than the individual immigrant [would do]," says Karl Eschbach, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston who has studied migrant death rates at the border. "And when the INS begins targeting smuggling as a criminal offense ... the moment of apprehension can be very dangerous."

The use of smugglers also greatly increases the price of passage. It used to cost $5 to cross the Rio Grande on makeshift ferries, says Maria Jiminez, the director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project, a Quaker-sponsored group in Houston.

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The ferries have now been effectively blockaded and people have to use more circuitous and dangerous overland routes. As a result, the average cost to transit the border illegally has risen to an estimated $300.

A trip from Guatemala to Los Angeles costs about $2,000. From China to the US, the price can be as high as $40,000. The farther away the country, the more likely an individual is to use a smuggler. And the more likely they are to end up in indentured servitude, says Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, a group of immigrant advocacy organizations.

Many women from China, Thailand, and other Asian countries are lured by unscrupulous smugglers to the US with promises of well-paying jobs. They get here and find themselves forced into prostitution or sweatshop jobs to pay off the cost of their passage.

"People are so shocked and humiliated to find themselves in these circumstances," says Ms. McHugh. "That's compounded by their fear of the authorities, they know they're illegal, and not understanding the language or the culture."

McHugh and other immigrant-rights advocates argue that the more the INS and the federal government crack down on illegal aliens, the more likely they are to be driven further underground and the more vulnerable they will be to exploitation.

"We'd be more effective if we took a multilateral view and started working with the countries of origin and targeting the victimizers there rather than the victims here," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonprofit immigrant-advocacy group.

During the past five years, the INS has made "major efforts" to target smugglers, according to Mr. Bergeron. Besides engaging in several joint operations to ferret out smugglers with other countries as diverse as Hong Kong and Canada, it is posting 40 agents overseas.

"They're going to countries and saying, 'Illegal immigration is a mutual problem, let's attack it together,' " says Demetrios Papademetriou, director of the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They're using a lot of resources that haven't traditionally been employed to fight illegal immigration, from intelligence gathering to diplomatic resources."

Mr. Papademetriou also finds it ironic that the end result of cracking down at the border has been to channel people into more systematic, organized smuggling rings, calling it a kind of "perverse effect" of the border strategy. But he also acknowledges that it presumably gives authorities a better opportunity to infiltrate and stop them.

And as for the people who've been smuggled in, Bergeron notes that they did choose to come here illegally.

"Even though many of these people have been victimized, that doesn't absolve us from our responsibility to enforce the law," he says.

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