MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This week Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced a new multiagency effort to target international organizations smuggling migrants into the U.S. Those organizations are doing brisk business lately as the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border reached record levels last month. Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP in El Paso, Texas, reports.
ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Ana Castro sat on a curb just steps from an international bridge in downtown Juarez, Mexico, and considered her options. She left Guatemala earlier this month with her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
ANA CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).
KOCHERGA: She says Border Patrol agents turned them away after they finally reached the U.S. They'd walk two hours through thorny brush in the desert to get to the outskirts of El Paso. Even so, she's leaning towards trying to cross again.
CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).
KOCHERGA: That's because she still owes thousands of dollars to the smuggler who brought her this far, and she needs to find work in the U.S. to pay that debt. Smuggling organizations make huge profits moving migrants, these days mostly from Central America, through Mexico and across the border. To get to the U.S., migrants often have to go through these transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: TCOs control all corridors, all routes.
KOCHERGA: During an interview at El Paso Border Patrol headquarters, two agents talk about their efforts to track smuggling operations. They spoke on the condition that we not use their names to protect their safety.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They have their own checkpoints, you know? They have their scouts. And it's a controlled area.
KOCHERGA: Smugglers, or coyotes, have long been a force on the Southwest border. In recent months, though, the agents say they've been particularly brazen. Surveillance footage shows smugglers dropping young children over a 14-foot border wall and leaving others on their own.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three years old, 5 years old, unattended out there in a desolate area.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We had an 8-year-old abandoned out there in the desert.
KOCHERGA: The border is still closed to most migrants under a pandemic health order, but the Biden administration has been allowing unaccompanied children into the country. Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who researches migration issues, says smugglers use those policies to their advantage. They encourage parents to send their kids across the border alone while offering to help sneak adults into the U.S.
JEREMY SLACK: If you really wanted to go after smuggling, then you'd create a system at the border where people can sign up and fill out their forms, show up and get processed in an orderly way. That will take the wind out of sails.
KOCHERGA: For now, the dangers of illegally crossing the border without a smuggler are common knowledge, says this man from Cuba. He's been waiting in Juarez for more than a year for the chance to ask for asylum in the U.S.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
KOCHERGA: He says if those who control the border find you trying to cross, they'll ask for a password. If you don't have one, things go badly. Smuggling organizations are also charging more these days because it's harder to cross the border. Jojana Suarez paid $7,000 to get from Honduras to the Texas border. She says she has to make it to the U.S. so she can work to pay the half she still owes them.
JOJANA SUAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KOCHERGA: So far, she's crossed the border...
KOCHERGA: ...Five times and plans to try again. After coming this far, she's decided there's no turning back. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in Juarez, Mexico.
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