Tackling illegal immigration from the top

Super Express Van Tours of Houston was not your ordinary bus line. It served neither tourists nor commuters. Instead, federal officials say, it specialized in transporting illegal immigrants around the country. Once they arrived from Mexico, it kept the passengers under lock and key in “safe houses” -- preventing both scrutiny from outsiders and possible escapes -- until it loaded them into minivans and shuttled them to cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami.

Super Express was no stranger to the Border Patrol and other federal authorities -- its drivers had been stopped and arrested seven times over five years for transporting illegal immigrants. But the drivers and their human cargo were merely the low-hanging fruit. That’s why it was a welcome development last week when agents arrested the company’s owner, Fermin A. Tovar. This reflects a marked shift in enforcement methods, officials said, and a critical step in what is intended to be an ongoing effort to crush the smuggling industry.

Super Express was one of 14 transportation companies raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities last week, and Tovar was among 22 people charged with using their businesses to transport illegal immigrants. The way it worked, according to the criminal complaint, was that Tovar would pay a commission of $300 per passenger to smugglers in Mexico. Once in the U.S., the migrants were part customer and part hostage; in many cases, the companies charged exorbitant fees that often were paid not by the passengers but by relatives at the end of the ride. Passengers sometimes would not be released if the money wasn’t paid, the complaint said.

When President Obama took office, his administration promised to focus immigration enforcement resources on employers rather than workers, and on dangerous criminals rather than nannies and gardeners. To that end, the government has stepped up scrutiny of companies’ employment paperwork, and audits are up tenfold. At the same time, the workplace roundups popular during the George W. Bush years, which punished illegal immigrants but not the companies that were enticing them into the country with jobs, have diminished.

As hopes for comprehensive immigration legislation recede, reform advocates are growing concerned about the rate at which immigrants are still being rounded up. For instance, 81 illegal immigrants also were taken into custody during last week’s bus company raids. It’s too much stick and no carrot, the reformers worry.

We too are anxious about the fate of reform. But the Houston raids should accord with everyone’s priorities. Cracking down on smugglers who endanger and exploit migrants is a corrective that’s long overdue.