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More immigrants risk crossing border crammed into vehicles

September 02, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Imagine squeezing into a side quarter panel of a sport-utility vehicle and having the panel closed over you so no one will know you are there.

Imagine about 8 to 9 inches of space between your body and the panel.

Now, imagine being in that position for hours as the temperature outside the vehicle soars over 100 degrees and the temperature in your space rises beyond that.

At the downtown Calexico Port of Entry inspectors are finding a growing number of immigrants willing to subject themselves to such conditions in their dream to enter the United States.

The number of such incidents where migrants have stowed in side panels and trunks of vehicles has risen so much this year that in one month there may be as many cases as the total number last year.

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U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Calexico Area Port Director Michael Freeman said Friday the effort is on to urge people not to risk their lives in such a manner.

"We are trying to aggressively stop this," Freeman said from his office overlooking Calexico. "We are trying to get out the word that this is extremely dangerous."

But immigrants aren't listening, and smugglers are not about to stop as long as business continues to be profitable.

Freeman said last year INS inspectors might have handled two cases a month of people being smuggled in trunks, side panels and other hiding places in vehicles.

Since May, the INS is seeing about 20 such cases a month in downtown Calexico and about five cases per month at the Calexico East Port of Entry.

That's only counting the cases in which people are caught.

One possible reason for the increase in cases here is the stepped-up effort to stop immigrant smuggling through ports in the San Diego area.

Freeman said as San Diego has seen a decrease in cases, the Imperial Valley has seen an increase and the Valley has yet to experience a peak in the effort to smuggle people in vehicles. He said as temperatures ease, the number of cases likely will rise.

The problem is, from a statistical standpoint, 99.9 percent of the traffic through the port is legitimate, Freeman said. For that reason every trunk of every vehicle cannot be checked.

To do that would basically bring the port operation to a standstill, and with 2,200 vehicles moving through the downtown port daily, that is not an option.

That means it is up to the front-line inspectors who man the checkpoints to use their skills and experience to catch the .1 percent of illegal activity.

That is no easy task since the inspectors only have seconds to question a motorist and decide whether a trunk should be checked or the vehicle pulled into the secondary inspection area.

"You look for body language, their speech, their eye contact or their lack of eye contact," said Connie Perez, special operations inspector for INS.

INS Inspector Carey Kohl said he looks at "their demeanor, the type of vehicle they are driving. Some vehicles have very large trunks."

He added trends play a role. If inspectors have been finding illegal immigrants in a certain kind of vehicle, inspectors start taking notice when they see that vehicle.

"We've pinpointed it down to two or three types of vehicles," Freeman said, although he would not disclose what those vehicles are.

That would be giving away too much information to smuggling rings, and inspectors need every advantage they can get in trying to stop illegal immigration through the port.

Freeman said what it comes down to is trying to save lives.

He pointed out a recent case in which a mother and daughter had been kept in the trunk of a vehicle for hours as a smuggler drove through Mexicali. When they finally reached the port, they spent about 10 minutes in line and when they reached the inspector, they were caught.

Freeman said when they opened the trunk both the mother and daughter were convulsing and had to be taken to El Centro Regional Medical Center for treatment.

There are many similar cases.

In another recent case, five immigrants were found crammed into the trunk of a Buick Skylark.

An Imperial woman, whose name was not available, was driving the vehicle and she was arrested. Since that was her third time attempting to smuggle people in to the country, and her first time doing it by smuggling people in a trunk, she likely will face prosecution.

That case brought up two key points.

First, if a smuggler is caught with people hiding in the trunk or side panels or any other area of the vehicle, that smuggler likely will face prosecution.

Freeman said a smuggler who has migrants sitting in the front or back seat — where their lives are not in danger — may not be prosecuted on their offense.

The second point is most smugglers involved in hiding people in their vehicles and coming through the Calexico ports reside in the United States as citizens or legal residents and the clear majority live in the Imperial Valley.

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