American teenagers recruited to hunt migrants from the Mexican border

SUNLAND PARK, NM, April 11 (Reuters) – Santi, 17, sits in his car outside stores in Sunland Park, New Mexico, watching a pulsating blue dot on his cellphone.

Smugglers hired him to pick up migrants here, less than a mile from the Mexican border, and take them to El Paso, Texas.

Her shiny red cell phone rings every 15 seconds. He and the migrants share locations, as a contact on the US side sends instructions.

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The high school student with a high fade haircut is among a growing number of American teenagers in communities from Texas to California recruited to ferry migrants across the southwest border, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

About one in four drivers caught smuggling migrants in the Sunland Park-Santa Teresa area last year were children, most U.S. citizens living locally, according to U.S. Border Patrol, which has started recording the young driver data in fiscal year 2021.

Mexican youth have long guided migrants to the United States. Recruiters tell Mexican and American teens they are unlikely to face legal consequences for being underage, according to about two dozen government and law enforcement officials, lawyers, rights advocates migrants and local residents with whom Reuters spoke.

American children as young as 14 find out about the work through social media and friends and mostly carry Mexican adults.

Young drivers can earn hundreds of dollars per migrant, and locals jokingly call them “Ubers”. Some see it as a way forward in Sunland Park, a working-class town with three times the national poverty rate where a third of residents are under 18 and many children live with grandparents.

But the job can be dangerous, and federal authorities in New Mexico seem keen to crack down on young drivers.

Teenage drivers tend to flee at high speeds when officers try to stop them, Border Patrol officials say. This can lead to Border Patrol chases and accidents.


Santi is parked about 900 feet west of a white and green US Border Patrol pickup truck. The migrants are hiding in the desert about 300 meters to the south.

Groups of smugglers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, took advantage of a cloudy night to push migrants through the rocky Mount Cristo Rey where there is no border barrier.

US agents in helicopters are struggling to see migrants through clouds, and high winds could prevent their drones from flying, according to Santi.

“It’s a good day for pickups,” said the teenager, who asked to be identified only as Santi and not to release details of his vehicle because transporting migrants is illegal.

Field agents check migrants’ phones for information and pass it on to anti-smuggling units looking for drivers, group leaders and local “hiding places” where migrants wait before travelling.

Gerardo Galvan, the patrol officer in charge of the Sunland Park area, noticed the increase in the number of child drivers in 2021 after a 14-year-old fled from officers and crashed into a van. border patrol.

“They’re told if they go fast enough, we’re going to stop chasing them,” Galvan said.

Galvan said he was working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to charge young drivers.

The Federal Defender’s Office in Las Cruces represented four minors for migrant smuggling in the first months of 2022 after six cases in 2021, according to Assistant Federal Public Defender Amanda Skinner.

Unless the child has already had problems, the majority of juvenile cases result in probation until the age of 21, she said.

“We don’t typically see senior officials charged. The vast majority of our cases are drivers,” Skinner said.


Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea sees no easy solution to the problem of juvenile drivers. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration is expecting another record year for migrant arrests at the southwestern border. A COVID-era policy that blocked most asylum applications is set to be lifted in May.

“The last thing we want to do is criminalize our young people,” said Perea, whose city is providing job opportunities for teens and planning an awareness program to deter drivers.

For activists like Irma Cruz, teenage drivers are caught between multibillion-dollar human trafficking and the US government’s policy of “weaponizing” the border as a deterrent.

“They’re easy prey and they’re being used,” said Cruz, campaign director for Border Network for Human Rights, an immigration advocacy group that also educates border residents about civil rights.

The most concerning incidents are, for example, when an 18-year-old from El Paso crashed his stuffed 10-person sedan after being chased by Border Patrol in 2020. Four local teenagers and three migrants were killed.

The American Civil Liberties Union and US lawmakers are calling on Border Patrol to only pursue high-speed suspects if they believe a violent crime has been committed.

“If Border Patrol itself knows that such a high percentage of drivers of these vehicles in particular areas are children recruited in this way, that should prevent them from conducting these types of dangerous vehicle chases,” the official said. ACLU lawyer Shaw Drake.

Galvan said officers attempting to stop a vehicle did not know if the driver was a child or an adult. He said officers should not engage in chases around schools and in residential areas during peak hours of the day and must receive permission from a supervisor to pursue a chase.

Santi transported migrants for a year and was arrested by Border Patrol but never charged. He knows the stakes will be higher once he turns 18.

When the parked Border Patrol truck drives off on McNutt Road, Santi is heading for a migrant rendezvous.

“I don’t want to go to jail for this,” he says.

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Reporting by Andrew Hay, Nathan Frandino and Adria Malcolm in Sunland Park, New Mexico; Editing by Donna Bryson and Aurora Ellis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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