Give Some Coyotes a Break

<i> Michael Huspek is associate professor of communication at California State University, San Marcos. His analysis of human and civil rights violations along the U.S.-Mexico border will appear in the summer issue of Social Justice</i>

This summer is shaping up as a dangerous one for migrants attempting to cross into the United States illegally. Reports from along the U.S.-Mexico border quantify the danger: 10 migrants perish in Texas’ desert heat; six others, including a pregnant woman, lost and feared dead east of La Rumorosa, between Tecate and Mexicali. The situation is dire in Southern California, too, where 55 migrants have died. These numbers, furthermore, may underestimate the true casualties, since no one knows how many migrants have been buried beneath rocks in deep canyons by their fellow travelers.

In response, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has announced that it will equip 100 Border Patrol agents with “hot weather kits”; commission the Civil Air Patrol to search for lost or stranded migrants; elicit cooperation from the Mexican government, which intends to post warnings of the perils facing migrants heading north, and offer rewards of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest or indictment of coyotes who smuggle people across the border.

These are commendable humanitarian gestures. But they fall wide of the mark, because they do not flow from a recognition that U.S. border-enforcement policies--pushing targeted prey into ever more remote terrain--indirectly stimulate more reckless behavior on the part of coyotes and migrants. Statements made by INS Commissioner Doris Meissner typify the unwillingness of government officials to acknowledge the causal role of U.S. policy. “It is not our border strategy that creates danger at the border,” Meissner says. Rather, the blame lies with “ruthless smugglers who put profits before people.”

That many coyotes are ruthless and increasingly desperate is beyond dispute, especially since Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California, and its sister operations in Texas and Arizona, have been expanded. Greedy, cunning coyotes will always be ready to assist migrants eager to go north. Migrant injuries and deaths will continue to rise because these coyotes will lead their charges into ever more dangerous environs to escape detection, or abandon them to the elements at the slightest hint of capture.


But coyotes are not the only group that has been criminalized since the United States raised the stakes in stopping illegal immigration. Migrants break the law when they enter the country without a visa; U.S. employers do, too, when they hire them. Yet, neither are prosecuted. “As a matter of policy, the U.S. attorney’s office does not prosecute economic migrants,” says Alan D. Bersin, the outgoing U.S. attorney for the Southwest region. “When economic migrants enter the United States illegally, they are returned to their country of origin.”

With anywhere from 40% to 70% of California’s agricultural labor force being undocumented, the INS has been similarly reluctant to prosecute U.S. employers who rely on migrants. In those rare instances when it has, judges have shied away from imposing tough sanctions.

Yet, what are the major differences between those who illegally guide migrants across the border and those who illegally employ them once they’ve arrived on U.S. soil? An obvious one is that one group is targeted and rigorously prosecuted--with first-time offenders facing up to five years in prison, along with a mandatory three-year minimum--while the other is not.

If that’s the only major difference between coyotes and U.S. employers of illegal immigrants, why shouldn’t the INS consider revamping its prosecution policy toward coyotes? Were coyotes not facing years in prison in a foreign country, it is conceivable that they might not go to such great lengths to evade apprehension and imperil the lives of their charges. Migrants’ lives, as well as those of Border Patrol agents, could be saved.


To be sure, there are coyotes who deserve all the prison time justice can deliver, just as there are U.S. employers who should spend some time behind bars for their harsh and inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants. Reports of sweatshop operators and their heinous treatment of migrant workers are mounting. Still, there is a nagging sense that the discoveries represent only a fraction of the problem. Yet, with so little law enforcement devoted to arresting employers of illegal immigrants, there is really no clear way of knowing just how dangerous and degrading their working conditions.

In prosecuting the more typical coyote, certain factors should be taken into account. For example, whether the coyote stayed with and protected his clientele or abandoned them when cornered, and whether he readily surrendered upon being stopped or desperately tried to escape. A two-tier prosecution strategy would still harshly punish the worst of the coyote offenders, but be more lenient toward those who exhibit some responsibility in protecting their clients.

There should be no shame in acknowledging that U.S. border policy has produced consequences that no U.S. policy maker could ever have intended. A revamped prosecution policy that distinguishes humane from inhumane coyote practices might be a start toward more honestly and intelligently addressing the escalating spiral of desperation and death along the border.