Sharp rise in Chinese arrests at border
Amid an overall drop in arrests of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S-Mexico border, an intriguing anomaly has cast a new light on human smuggling: Authorities report an almost tenfold spike in the number of Chinese people caught in the southern Arizona desert, the busiest smuggling corridor on the international line.
The Border Patrol in the Tucson sector has arrested at least 261 Chinese border-crossers this year, compared with an annual average of 32 during the last four years, officials said.
“They are the main [non-Mexicans] we catch,” said field operations supervisor Juventino Pacheco of the patrol’s international liaison unit in Nogales. “Lately we have been catching more Chinese than Central Americans.”
When agents find Chinese migrants -- hiding in gulches, perhaps, or huddled in smugglers’ vehicles -- they often request help from Dean Delap, the sector’s only Mandarin-speaking agent. He taught and studied in China, but had not expected that to prove valuable in Nogales.
“Some are cooperative,” Delap said. “Some are scared. They’ve just been arrested, they are in a new place. I put them at ease.”
Chinese remain a small fraction of the overall number processed at the Nogales station -- which guards 31 miles abutting Nogales, Mexico.
The Tucson sector, where the Nogales station is located, recorded about 226,000 apprehensions this year. That is a 24% decline from the last fiscal year -- reflecting the impact of both the U.S. economic crisis and tougher border enforcement, officials said.
The great majority of those arrested were Mexicans. Chinese belong to a category known in the Border Patrol as OTMs: other than Mexicans. And they are big business for smuggling gangs that increasingly have overlapped with Mexico’s violent drug mafias.
Mexicans typically pay smugglers about $1,500 for help crossing the sun-seared landscape, which is as dangerous as it is majestic. The fees for Central Americans and South Americans often reach $6,000. A group of Haitians, intercepted a few years ago in Tucson after three nights spent hiking in circles in a canyon, had coughed up $10,000; another $10,000 was to have been paid upon arrival in the Chicago area.
The Chinese -- nearly all of them from Fujian province -- pay the most. They often have to work off debts of $30,000 to $70,000 over several years as indentured servants in the sweatshops and kitchens of New York and other cities.
Sophisticated Asian mafias organize intricate journeys to the U.S. A typical route leads from Beijing to Rome to Caracas, Venezuela, to Mexico City to the border, according to Matthew Allen, chief agent of the Phoenix office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It’s much more elaborate” than smuggling Latin Americans, Allen said. “Waiting in hotel rooms, calls on cellphones, code words. . . . The trend [in increased arrests] stands out as apprehensions are going down overall.”
But the uptick in arrests of Chinese does not necessarily reflect a major influx from that country, officials said. Statistical barometers are imperfect.
High-priced smugglers are better at dodging defenses, so it’s hard to assess the correlation between arrests, crossing rates and the number who succeed in illegally immigrating.
Chinese smuggling made headlines at its peak in the early 1990s, when flotillas carrying would-be immigrants swarmed the coasts of Southern California, Mexico and Central America.
Ten people died in June 1993 when the ship Golden Venture ran aground in New York carrying 286 immigrants, more than the total captured this year at the Arizona border.
A crackdown at sea and tighter political asylum rules reduced the flow.
Today, Asian smugglers favor air routes, exploiting favorable visa policies for Chinese travelers in countries including Ecuador, Honduras and Venezuela, which are hubs for their travel to Mexico, officials said.
U.S. investigators have gathered intelligence about thousands of Chinese who have settled temporarily in Ecuador with the intention of sneaking into the United States, according to a high-ranking federal official who requested anonymity when discussing the international surveillance.
“The smugglers are attuned to nuances in South American visa policies, and will adapt,” Allen said.
The number of Chinese apprehended along the Southwest boundary fluctuates. Borderwide arrests hit 2,060 in the 2006 fiscal year, dipped to near 700 during the next two years, and then rose to 1,221 as of August, according to the Border Patrol.
The patrol’s McAllen sector in south Texas, a high-volume corridor for non-Mexicans because of its relative proximity to Central America, led all sectors with at least 667 arrests of Chinese by August, officials say.
But proportionally, the Tucson area experienced the most dramatic surge.
One reason for that, officials said: the convergence of drugs and illegal immigrants in the Sonora-Arizona area. The dominant drug mafia in the region, the Sinaloa cartel, “saw an opportunity to get into Chinese smuggling,” said Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante.
The evolving alliance between traffickers of drugs and of immigrants -- once separate specialties -- is complex. According to investigators, drug lords use their firepower to control turf and tax others for the use of border corridors, known in Spanish as plazas, charging $50,000 to $100,000 a week.
“The drug trafficking organizations in the plazas control who smuggles, what they smuggle, where they smuggle,” Allen said.
At times, when drug mafias are at war or when moving drug loads is difficult, muscling in on the human smuggling racket brings easy profit and less risk, Pacheco said.
And whereas violent retaliation is common among drug traffickers after a big bust, it’s less so among smugglers whose immigrants are caught.
“Losing Chinese, you lose money but not an investment upfront,” Pacheco said. “They don’t buy the Chinese, they charge them.”
Nonetheless, Allen said, “the drug and alien smuggling groups are still separate entities. Once human smugglers make it into the U.S. with their loads, there is not coordination.”
Chinese immigrants intercepted by the Border Patrol have often spent months on the road.
“Some speak a few words of Spanish,” Delap said. “Most of them communicate with hand gestures and body language.”
Delap, who majored in political science and minored in Chinese at Brigham Young University, taught English in Yunnan and Xinjiang provinces eight years ago. He has been with the Border Patrol two years.
He sees the chance to use his knowledge of Chinese language and culture as one humanitarian aspect of the Border Patrol, which frequently rescues immigrants from the desert.
Although his conversations with Chinese immigrants focus on basic information, it is clear that his presence is reassuring.
“A lot of times at the end of the shift when I have to go, they realize that and a lot of questions come flooding out: Where are they going, when will they be leaving the detention facility, what will happen,” he said. “I explain the best I can.”