Work on bor­der wall gives il­le­gals new way to en­ter

Im­pos­tors wear vests, ‘clone’ trucks

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

Pres­i­dent Trump’s bor­der wall may even­tu­ally stop il­le­gal im­mi­grants, but right now it has cre­ated a new way for them to sneak into the U.S. thanks to the flurry of con­struc­tion in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The Wash­ing­ton Times has learned that mi­grants are blend­ing into the con­struc­tion crews build­ing the wall, even don­ning or­ange work vests to fit in with the sur­round­ings. The smug­glers are us­ing the vests too and go­ing so far as to “clone” con­struc­tion com­pany trucks to try to fool Bor­der Pa­trol agents.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to know how many times the tac­tic has been suc­cess­ful, but The Times has un­cov­ered at least three cases in the past cou­ple of months in which agents sniffed out the ruses and nabbed peo­ple in­volved.

“The cur­rent con­struc­tion of the U.S./ Mex­ico In­ter­na­tional Bound­ary Fence (IBF) has helped smug­glers blend in with le­git­i­mate con­struc­tion ve­hi­cles in this area,” agent Anna Dava­los told a judge in an af­fi­davit sup­port smug­gling charges in one of the cases, an Oct. 15 at­tempt in the desert west of Calex­ico.

Agents told The Times they ex­pected it. They saw the same thing a decade ago dur­ing a round of fence-build­ing un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, and be­fore that when parts of Cal­i­for­nia were first fenced off from Mex­ico.

Each time, after fenc­ing was con­structed, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in those ar­eas dropped. Agents say that is what they ex­pect this time too, though for now Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion ac­knowl­edged the con­struc­tion is caus­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties “to ex­ploit real or per­ceived vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.”

Mr. Trump’s quest to dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand the ex­ist­ing bor­der wall is likely to cre­ate plenty of op­por­tu­nity for con­struc­tion-re­lated mis­chief.

Should the courts and Congress co­op­er­ate, the pres­i­dent said, he ex­pects some 400 miles of wall to be built from 2017 to 2020. Some of that will be new, and other sec­tions will re­place out­dated fenc­ing.

So far, most of the con­struc­tion has been in Cal­i­for­nia and west­ern Ari­zona, where the govern­ment owns much of the land and build­ing is rel­a­tively easy. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced com­mence­ment of dozens of miles in the Rio Grande Val­ley area of Texas.

So far, no new mileage of the bor­der has been fenced in. All con­struc­tion has been re­place­ment of ex­ist­ing walls or ve­hi­cle bar­ri­ers, or adding a sec­ondary wall set back from the pri­mary bor­der wall. Be­tween the walls is a no-go zone, where mi­grants are more eas­ily cap­tured.

In at least one of the cases The Times un­cov­ered, a fake con­struc­tion ve­hi­cle was used to gain ac­cess to that no man’s land.

CBP, which over­sees the Bor­der Pa­trol, in­sisted there are ways to deal with those sit­u­a­tions.

“While CBP can’t dis­close spe­cific strate­gies we use, we can say that through sit­u­a­tional aware­ness, in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and rapid re­sponse we pre­vent these smug­gling at­tempts from suc­ceed­ing,” the agency said.

One of those tac­tics is ask­ing le­git­i­mate con­struc­tion trucks to hang tags from their rearview mir­rors so agents can quickly tell whether the traf­fic is au­then­tic.

Lack of a tag was how agents nabbed

An­gel­ica Jes­sica Lopez, the woman charged in the Oct. 15 smug­gling run. Court doc­u­ments say Ms. Lopez was caught with three il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Mex­ico, who paid $7,000 apiece to be smug­gled into the coun­try.

In a case ear­lier, agents spot­ted three il­le­gal im­mi­grants cross­ing in an area that the Bor­der Pa­trol calls “Jonny Wolf’s,” near the Otay Mesa bor­der cross­ing point.

A re­mote sur­veil­lance cam­era spot­ted four peo­ple in or­ange work vests jump­ing the bor­der. Agents said it was “an at­tempt to blend in with the con­struc­tion crews.”

One per­son, pre­sum­ably the foot guide, re­turned to Mex­ico while three oth­ers climbed into a truck that had been wait­ing for them. Agents stopped the truck and ar­rested the driver, who said he was get­ting $800 for the smug­gling run. The three mi­grants had paid $7,000 apiece.

Also in Septem­ber, agents in San Diego tracked a Ford F-250 truck tricked out to look like a con­struc­tion com­pany ve­hi­cle as it cruised along the bor­der wall con­struc­tion zone near the San Ysidro Port of En­try.

Agents said they sus­pected the truck had made pre­vi­ous runs, and they man­aged to stop it this time as it drove out of a re­stricted con­struc­tion zone. They ar­rested the driver, who was a ju­ve­nile they didn’t iden­tify, and a pas­sen­ger. Both were wear­ing or­ange work vests.

In­side the truck’s bed, which was cov­ered by a shell, agents found 22 il­le­gal im­mi­grants, some of whom said they feared for their life from over­crowd­ing and lack of seats, seat belts or wa­ter.

Chris Har­ris, who re­cently re­tired from the Bor­der Pa­trol in San Diego, said con­struc­tion crews will some­times help agents sniff out im­pos­tors try­ing to hide among the flurry of work.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Mr. Har­ris said. “But when you re­al­ize they’re try­ing to smug­gle nar­cotics or worse, then it be­comes much more, ‘You don’t want to get burned.’”

Cloning is an age-old tac­tic for bor­der smug­glers.

Fake FedEx and UPS de­liv­ery trucks have been used, as have fake — and real — am­bu­lances.

In one case over the sum­mer, agents at a highway check­point in South Texas stopped an am­bu­lance that claimed to be trans­port­ing a pa­tient. The driver’s ner­vous be­hav­ior tipped off the agent on duty. When the agent be­gan to ask ques­tions the story fell apart. At the same time, an­other agent’s dog be­gan to alert on the ve­hi­cle as car­ry­ing drugs or mi­grants.

They dis­cov­ered six il­le­gal im­mi­grants in the back of the am­bu­lance, in­clud­ing one who was pre­tend­ing to be a pa­tient, strapped to a stretcher with a neck brace, an oxy­gen mask and an in­tra­venous drip, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

The driver ad­mit­ted to agents that he was be­ing paid $2,000 to drive the six from McAllen to Hous­ton, and his co-con­spir­a­tor said he was get­ting an ad­di­tional $1,000. Two of the smug­gled mi­grants told agents they had paid the co-con­spir­a­tor $3,500 apiece as the fi­nal in­stall­ments in their smug­gling fees.

Other fakes have in­cluded a bo­gus adult­care van in Texas in July 2018 and a bo­gus paramedics truck.

While some of the cloned ve­hi­cles are good fakes, they don’t of­ten stand up to close scru­tiny.

Agents said smug­glers will time their runs to co­in­cide with Bor­der Pa­trol shift changes, fig­ur­ing they may be able to fool the sur­veil­lance cam­eras and, with agents ei­ther headed back to base or from base to the field, won’t have to sur­vive an up-close ex­am­i­na­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

After fenc­ing is con­structed, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion drops. Bor­der Pa­trol agents say that is what they ex­pect this time too, though Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion ac­knowl­edges the con­struc­tion is caus­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties “to ex­ploit real or per­ceived vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.”

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