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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Durango Herald Online - Immigration Series

Durango Herald Online

72.2° - WNW, 1.0 mph Sunday, June 27, 2004
June 27, 2004

Smugglers bring immigrants through area to avoid feds
Migrant woman dies in effort to reach husband
Local office works on migrant issues
Immigration series


By Brian Newsome
Herald Staff Writer

Smugglers are using Four Corners highways to traffic illegal immigrants from border towns to major cities, making Durango's immigration office one of the busiest in a four-state region.

Several U.S. highways in the Four Corners, including U.S. Highways 160 and 550, connect the U.S./Mexico border to major cities across the country. A federal operation to crack down on smuggling in Phoenix has forced more smugglers to come through here. Up to 25 people at a time have been found crammed into minivans and pickups when pulled over by local police.

"I've seen a number of these vehicles where the seats have been removed," said Warren Long, the resident agent in charge of Durango's Office of Investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. The agency formerly was called the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"People are spread out like cordwood on the floor."

The local office, which covers seven counties in Southwest Colorado, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah, gets weekly calls from local law-enforcement agencies that unwittingly pull over smugglers for various traffic violations. In more tragic circumstances, agents are called to accidents involving overburdened vehicles.

In 2001, a truck carrying 19 passengers drove off of U.S. Highway 160 between Bayfield and Chimney Rock. A 27-year-old woman was killed.

The Durango Office of Investigations is not a uniformed patrol agency, but its investigators respond to calls from other law enforcement agencies that discover possible violations. Those referrals, Long said, consume the majority of the agents' time.

Sgt. Thomas J. Thompson, of the Colorado State Patrol's Durango office, said a smuggler carrying fewer than 10 immigrants was discovered about three weeks ago. In most cases, however, troopers discover vans or pickups full of dozens of immigrants. State troopers contact about 1,000 vehicles a week, Thompson said. Of those, at least one is usually an undocumented immigrant or a smuggler.

Michael Masto is assistant special agent in charge of the regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Denver, which covers Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He said the Durango office is one of the busiest of nine such offices when it comes to human smuggling. "Durango, because of ICE Storm having its successes, has become a very busy office for us in terms of overland smuggling such as this," he said.

ICE Storm is a large-scale crackdown on criminal smuggling in Phoenix. According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Web site, 190 defendants, $5.2 million in currency, and 99 weapons have been seized. The operation has increased over-the-road traffic through the Four Corners, in part, because smuggling by air out of Phoenix airports has been shut down.

Masto declined to provide statistics on the number of local referrals to his agency, saying the statistics were sensitive for law-enforcement operations.

From November 2002 to July 2003, at least three accidents in the region involved undocumented aliens coming from Arizona, two of them with fatalities.

Long recalled one of those. A 7-year-old girl was among four who died when their vehicle collided with a semi-truck in Utah. The smuggler had consumed some cold medication and had fallen asleep at the wheel. "They had collided virtually head on," Long said. "The results were devastating."

In other cases, undocumented immigrants are found with serious injuries or infections. Long said agents intervened for one smuggled migrant last year who was traveling with a broken leg; he was injured while crossing the border. The man was treated at Mercy Medical Center and sent home to Mexico to be with his family, said Augusto Ellacuriaga, a program coordinator for the Sixth Judicial District Probation Department who works closely with immigrants and had helped the man at the time.

"Had it gone on much further he may have lost his leg," Long said.

Thompson, of the State Patrol, said most smugglers are discovered when they are pulled over on routine traffic stops. A trooper may contact a driver who does not have a license or registration and may not speak English.

Immigrants who are deported are transported to Denver, Masto said. Planes then fly them back to Mexico.

Though smugglers are passing through Durango and surrounding towns, Long said there has been no evidence of the Four Corners being a destination point for criminal operations or the people being smuggled.

Ellacuriaga said a "very, very small percentage" of smuggled immigrants stay in the Four Corners. Unlike larger cities like New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles, jobs are hard to come by here, he said. Jobs are seasonal and it's necessary to know English for most people to make it.

"Jobs and economics are the two main forces that cause immigrants to displace," he said.

For Long, the danger smugglers place their human cargo in is one of the most troubling aspects of the problem. He thinks of the 7-year-old girl who died. "The fatality accidents are horrendous."

Reach Brian Newsome here .

Migrant woman dies in effort to reach husband

By Leslie Hoffman
Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, N.M. – He had been holding her head in his hand for several minutes now, watching as the woman struggled to breathe, like a fish gasping for air on the parched desert floor, a dark-colored fluid oozing from her mouth.

His hand was pressed up against her hot, dry neck, waiting for the next shallow beat of her ever-weakening heart.

Help was coming. But as he knelt beside her, the Border Patrol agent worried that he was watching life quickly slip from the 32-year-old mother from Veracruz, Mexico.

Soon the ambulance was crossing the old farm field on the outskirts of this border town. But as it pulled up, just feet away, the agent suddenly noticed the slight beat under his fingers had disappeared and the breath, which just moments ago struggled to pass across the woman’s lips, was gone.

She was pronounced dead an hour later at a hospital 30 miles away.

Her name was Eunice Avila Hernandez – headed north toward Colorado, she had said, in hopes of reuniting with her husband.

Her death May 14 marked the first documented migrant death of the year in New Mexico – the beginning of a deadly season during which those seeking illegal passage north from Mexico set out, often unprepared, into the scorching Southwest desert.

This month, three more deaths have been recorded – more heat-related migrant deaths in New Mexico than in all of 2002 or 2003. In each of those years, there were two.

The latest came Monday when Border Patrol officials said 20-year-old Isidoro Badillo Barrientos collapsed and died after more than a day of walking in the desert northwest of here with a group of fellow immigrants from near Mexico City.

Last week, authorities found a decomposed body they believe is that of a Mexican woman in her 20s. On June 4, Victor Hugo de Jesus Montalvo, 17, of Puebla, Mexico, died as he and two brothers traveled with a group.

The deaths have New Mexico authorities troubled about the prospect of more hot months ahead – a concern compounded by the fact that the number of illegal immigrants apprehended along this stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to climb. The Deming and Lordsburg Border Patrol stations, which are responsible for most of New Mexico’s border, have seen a combined 35 percent increase in apprehensions this year compared to last.

"Unfortunately, we’re going to see more of this," said Border Patrol agent Michael Holt, who cradled Hernandez as she struggled to hang onto life.

Paramedics later discovered items Hernandez had tucked away in a hidden pouch, one was a photo of her holding a baby.

For Holt, who has spent more than three years patrolling the southern New Mexico landscape for people like Eunice Avila Hernandez, the woman’s death delivered a powerful message.

Driving home that night, it hit him.

"I think it was more of a realization of what happened. ... Something big had happened. Something not just trivial," he said, his voice trailing off. "It’s hard to put into words."

"When something like this happens, you go home and hug your kids," Hernandez said. "You’re just happy that you’re going home, and you’re grateful for the time you have."

Local office works on migrant issues

By Brian Newsome
Herald Staff Writer

The Durango office responsible for illegal immigration issues in the Four Corners is an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

A local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service opened here in 1999, but the INS was abolished by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, when a law was passed to create the Department of Homeland Security. A new agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, was formed, said Warren Long, the resident agent in charge of Durango’s ICE office.

Long said ICE is the largest investigative arm of the Homeland Security Department’s 22 agencies, which includes the Secret Service, Sky Marshals, the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Borders Protection.

Investigators for Immigration and Customs Enforcement do far more than deal with human smuggling and illegal immigration, he said. They investigate child pornography rings, cyber crimes and financial crimes, to name a few.

The agency is not listed in the Durango phone book. It operates in an unmarked office in Bodo Industrial Park.

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