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California and the West

Cars Hiding More Smuggled Immigrants

Border: Tiny spaces are being used, such as converted gas tanks and false floors. Fewer migrants want to risk desert or mountain treks.


SAN DIEGO — For U.S. inspectors at the Mexican border here, the 43,000 cars and trucks that pour north each day present a nonstop guessing game of who's hiding what--and where.

Increasingly, immigration officials say, the answer is that smugglers are sneaking undocumented immigrants inside suffocatingly snug recesses. Migrants are secreted inside converted gas tanks. Suspended on plywood racks above the pavement. Tucked under false floors. Next to engines. Many others are crammed, four and five at a time, into trunks.

It is the latest twist in the cat-and-mouse duel between smugglers and U.S. inspectors at the San Ysidro port of entry, the nation's busiest. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say they are seeing a rapid and disturbing rise in the number of immigrants being sneaked from Mexico inside tiny vehicle compartments.

Employing throwaway vehicles and remarkable ingenuity with the cutting torch and welder, smugglers are surprising inspectors long practiced at finding the hidden. Last week, inspectors found a woman tucked virtually inside a wheel well of a van. She was betrayed when her hair spilled out an opening.

"Anyone can throw someone in a trunk. But people who build these compartments have been thinking about it and planning it. It's organized. It's a business," said David Salazar, who supervises a team of INS inspectors pursuing criminal cases at San Ysidro.

Sporadic smuggling of undocumented immigrants hidden in cars and trucks is an old story at the border, but U.S. officers say the number of cases has more than doubled since 1999, with about 10,600 arrests at San Ysidro last year. The trend appears to have accelerated this year.

Officials say the sudden rise is due in large part to stepped-up patrols that have made it more difficult to jump the border fence and sprint north without detection in outlying areas. As a result, officials say, smugglers have increasingly sought to sneak human cargo through the San Ysidro port of entry.

While arrests of people illegally crossing the border between the ports of entry have plummeted during the six-year crackdown known as Operation Gatekeeper, apprehensions at San Ysidro and five other ports of entry in California have climbed steadily. Total arrests went from a low of 48,882 in 1997 to 84,276 last year. A similar jump has been reported at ports of entry east to Texas.

"It's put a tremendous amount of pressure on the ports of entry," said Bruce Ward, INS deputy director for ports at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Tecate.

Ward said that during some months, INS arrests at San Ysidro exceed those along 14 surrounding miles of border fence watched by the U.S. Border Patrol. That area was once an easy place to cross illegally.

While document fraud cases make up the largest share of port arrests, U.S. officials say they are especially worried about the growing--and increasingly inventive--use of vehicle compartments. Administrators are concerned that the practice may prove as deadly as the back-country crossings that have prompted warnings by the United States and Mexico.

There have been no deaths resulting from the compartment cases, but several immigrants have required treatment for dehydration and burns after riding alongside hot engines. Last year, Ward said, two men were pulled, with burns, from under the hood of a pickup that crashed after the driver raced past inspectors. In December, a man and woman were discovered by an INS dog as they lay in side-by-side gas tanks under the bed of a pickup that pulled up to the border. The two immigrants breathed through respirator masks, linked by hose to scuba tanks in the truck bed. Each reported having paid $3,000, officials said.

"We're very alarmed by this trend," said Adele J. Fasano, who oversees the INS in San Diego and Imperial counties. "We've had some serious injuries. We're very concerned that will continue. Our ultimate concern is that someone will lose their life."

Migrant-rights advocates say the jump in compartment cases reveals the futility of stopping unlawful entries while jobs abound north of the border.

"For the INS to say it's alarmed and surprised is somewhat disingenuous. It's an obvious and anticipated response to a one-sided enforcement strategy," said Jordan C. Budd, managing attorney for the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial counties. "As long as the jobs are available and the federal government ignores the employers who offer these jobs, people will continue to come."

Government warnings about the dangers of crossing through deserts and mountains appear to have had the unintended result of prompting some migrants to choose instead to be smuggled in trunks and custom-built compartments.

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