Santi, 17, sat in his car outside stores in Sunland Park, New Mexico, observing a blinking blue dot on his cell phone.
Human smugglers hired him to pick up migrants here, less than a mile from the Mexican border, and take them to nearby El Paso, Texas.
His shiny red cell phone rings every 15 seconds. He and the migrants share locations, like an American contact with instructions.
The high school boy with the high ponytail is among a growing number of American teenagers in communities from Texas to California being recruited to transporting migrants across the Southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
About a quarter of the drivers caught migrating last year in the Sunland Park-Santa Teresa area were children, with most US citizens living locally, according to the US Border Patrol. first recorded underage driver data for fiscal year 2021.
Young Mexicans have long guided migrants into the United States. According to government and law enforcement officialsLawyers, migrant advocates and local residents spoke to Reuters.
U.S. kids as young as 14 learn about work from social media and friends and mostly from Mexican adults who transport.
Young drivers can earn hundreds of dollars per immigrant, and locals jokingly call them “Ubers”. Some see it as a way to get ahead in Sunland Park, a working-class town with a poverty rate three times the national rate, where a third of residents are under 18 and many children live with poverty. grandparents.
But the job can be dangerous, and the federal government in New Mexico seems to want it break off about adolescent drivers.
Teen drivers tend to run away at high speeds when officers try to stop them, according to Border Patrol officials. That could lead to pursuits by the Border Patrol and trouble.
Good day for pickups
Santi was parked about 900 feet west of the white and blue US Border Patrol pickup truck. The migrants are hiding in the desert about 1,000 feet to the south.
Smugglers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, used the cloudy night to push migrants across the rocky Cristo Rey mountain, where there is no border fence.
US agents on board the helicopter struggled to see migrants through the clouds, and strong winds could prevent their drones from flying, according to Santi.
“It was a good day for the truckers,” the teenager asked to be identified only as Santi and that his vehicle details not be released because it is illegal to transport migrants. .
Field agents check migrants’ phones for information and pass it on to anti-smuggling units looking for drivers, team leaders and local “warehouses,” where migrants wait before leaving. .
Gerardo Galvan, patrol agent in charge of the Sunland Park area, noticed an increase in underage drivers in 2021 after a 14-year-old agent fled and crashed into a Patrol van border.
“They were told that if they went fast enough, we would stop chasing them,” Galvan said.
Galvan said he is working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to bring charges against underage drivers.
The federal agency’s office in Las Cruces represented four minors for immigrant-smuggling charges in the first few months of 2022 after six in all of 2021, according to the Assistant Public Defender Union Union Amanda Skinner.
Unless the child is ever in trouble, most juvenile cases are on probation until age 21, she said.
“We usually don’t see the more senior people being charged. The majority of our cases are drivers,” Skinner said.
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea sees no easy way to tackle the underage driver problem. Meanwhile, the administration of President Joe Biden expects another record year of migrant arrests at the Southwest border. One Policy in the era of COVID blocked most asylum requests are set to lift in the May.
“The last thing we want to do is criminalize our youth,” said Perea, whose town provides job opportunities for youth and is planning an outreach program to stop the drivers.
For activists like Irma Cruz, teen drivers are caught between a multibillion-dollar human trafficking operation and the US government’s “militarization” of the border as a deterrent.
“They are easy prey and are being exploited,” said Cruz, campaign director of the Border Human Rights Network, an immigration advocacy group that also educates border residents about citizenship.
The biggest concern is trouble such as when an 18-year-old El Paso crashed his car with 10 people after being chased by the Border Patrol in 2020. Four local teenagers and three migrants were killed.
The American Civil Liberties Union and US lawmakers are calling on the Border Patrol to pursue suspects at high speed only if they believe a violent felony has been committed.
“If Border Patrol knew that a high percentage of drivers of these vehicles in specific areas were children employed in this way, it should be,” said ACLU Attorney Shaw Drake. prevent them from conducting these kinds of dangerous vehicle pursuits.
Galvan said officers trying to stop a vehicle didn’t know if the driver was a child or an adult. He said agents must not engage in pursuits around schools and in residential areas at busy times of the day and must obtain permission from a supervisor to continue pursuits.
Santi was transporting migrants for a year and was stopped by Border Patrol but was never charged. He knew the stakes would be higher when he was 18.
As the Border Patrol truck was parked down McNutt Street, Santi headed for a rendezvous for migrants.
“I don’t want to go to jail for this,” he said.