Smugglers Are Equal-Opportunity Employers

The juvenile and the sexagenarian

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 16, 2020

Two recent smuggling attempts, one by land on Saturday in Texas, and one by the shores of Del Mar, Calif., last Tuesday, show that smugglers are equal-opportunity employers, hiring both the young and those eligible for AARP benefits.

Mid-morning on Saturday, Border Patrol agents assisted deputies from the Jim Hogg County Sheriff's Office during a traffic stop near Hebbronville, Texas, southeast of Laredo. The driver of the vehicle was a minor (his age is not listed in the CBP press release, but he looks about 17), and he was chauffeuring nine individuals — all illegal migrants from Honduras and Mexico — in an apparent smuggling attempt.

The Sheriff's Office got to keep the car, but Border Patrol got the migrants. It is not clear who got the driver, but someone did.

It would make sense that smugglers would hire a minor for the job. As a practical matter, they likely attract less attention, and as a legal matter, will probably get a lighter sentence — if any sentence at all.

It is unclear where the youth met up with the migrants, but transportation of an alien illegally present within the United States is a violation of section 274(a)(1)(A)(ii) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.

The general rule is that when it comes to juvenile crimes, the offender should be prosecuted by the state, when possible. But, of course, there are no state crimes for the smuggling of illegal aliens — immigration enforcement is strictly federal, as the Supreme Court made clear in Arizona v. United States.

In such cases, 18 U.S.C. § 5032 has a number of protections for juvenile offenders, including hearings in chambers, as opposed to in public in a courtroom. The smuggler in this case may well see no detention time at all, especially if it was a first offense.

This is not just a phenomenon for smugglers on this side of the border. An extremely sympathetic study published in April included 97 surveys of Mexican-national unaccompanied alien children (UAC) who had been returned by CBP to Mexico within the previous 30 days. It stated:

Notably, about 31 percent reported involvement in border-specific labor on the fringes of the informal economy, such as working as a guía (guide), coyote (human smuggler), or mula (drug transporter). ... Criminal actors understand that minors do not face the same consequences as adult migrants if they are apprehended crossing the border as a guide or with a load of drugs. Therefore, they often use minors to carry out these activities since they will just be returned to Mexico. ... Also, many teenagers are physically fit, can endure the strenuous journey, and will work for less money.

Needless to say, this presents not just a problem for the UAC in question (who may be trafficked or otherwise exploited, or just in it for the money), but for CBP and U.S. law enforcement generally, as well. What do you do with a 15-year-old coyote or mula?

The other end of the smuggler age scale involved an operation that was interrupted by Border Patrol early last Tuesday morning in north San Diego County, Calif. At 3:00 AM that day, agents spotted what CBP described as "suspicious vessel off the coast of Del Mar near Dog Beach". They arrived at Camino Del Mar and saw a group of people wearing life jackets, headed toward three waiting vehicles.

Two of the vehicles took off "at a high rate of speed", but agents stopped the third, a 2003 Mazda minivan, at the scene. Inside, they found eight Mexican nationals — three females and five males — all illegally present. The driver was a 68-year-old U.S. citizen male.

Unfortunately for him, there are no special provisions in federal law for senior citizens. But a sexagenarian driving a minivan in the San Diego suburbs would likely not have attracted that much attention, even in the early pre-dawn hours.

Agents tracked the other two vehicles to a hotel up the coast in Carlsbad, where the drivers (a U.S. citizen male and female) were arrested, along with eight other Mexican nationals. As for the boat, it was a panga, and U.S. Coast Guard stopped it on its way back to Mexico. Two Mexican nationals were aboard, apparently the skipper and a passenger. They were taken into custody, as well.

Smuggling is big business, or more specifically, a $3.5 billion to $4.2 billion industry (according to the UN in 2018). It does not appear to be one that is particularly choosy about whom it hires to do its dirty work. Except when it has good reasons for doing so.