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Human smuggling is an increasing problem nationally, locally

In the past, the word “coyote” brought with it the image of a wild critter that howls and yips at night, maybe steals chickens from a hen house or engages in a futile chase across the desert in pursuit of a cartoon roadrunner.

But more recently, the first image that pops into many minds when it comes to a coyote is that of the human smuggler, someone who moves people across the desert like cargo, often in hidden compartments or the backs of trucks, destinations and fates often uncertain.

The total number of arrests of illegal immigrants along the southern border has gone down over the years, with 2018’s figure – 396,579 – being a third of what it was in 2000, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those numbers are significantly less even than the fiscal year 2014 total of 479,371.

“In terms of enforcement … we don’t see a lot of people being detained the way we were experiencing two years ago or even a year and a half ago,” said immigration attorney Jama Ibrahim.

But the arrests for human smuggling nationally have spiked dramatically, increasing from 2,718 to 4,081 between 2017 and 2018.

National HSI Human Smuggling arrests

Fiscal year 2018: 4,081

FY17: 2,718

FY16: 2,734

Ibrahim said the common practice is for families to pay a smuggler, known as a coyote, to help get them through the border, often transporting them hundreds of miles to destinations in the U.S.

In late December, Georgia State Patrol stopped a Chevrolet Suburban on Interstate 85 northbound in Jackson County.

According to an affidavit from an ICE agent, the trooper encountered Hector Escobedo-Reyna with eight adult passengers and two minors. Escobedo-Reyna had a Texas license and a U.S. passport.

The 10 passengers were originally from Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras and El Salvador.

“They all stated they were present in the U.S. illegally and were being smuggled to their destination of choice with their families along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. to include New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina,” according to the agent’s affidavit.

Two of the passengers said their families had paid fees for the alleged smuggling.

“(The two passengers) both stated they had paid an unidentified male to drive them, and that person drove them to a parking lot in Houston, Texas, where he handed the vehicle to Escobedo-Reyna along with names and phone numbers of the family members of the passengers to (be) dropped off,” according to the affidavit.

The ICE agent filed the affidavit in support of Escobedo-Reyna’s arrest, saying there was probable cause that the man “was transporting 10 illegal aliens within the United States as part of a human smuggling scheme.”

A federal grand jury indicted Hector Escobedo-Reyna Feb. 6 on charges of transporting undocumented aliens.

But this wasn’t Escobedo-Reyna’s first run-in with the law.

According to the affidavit, Escobedo-Reyna has reportedly encountered law enforcement under similar circumstances, but prosecution was declined.

ICE officials did not answer questions related to why prosecution would be declined in previous instances nor why the number of arrests nationally have increased.

The relationship between the smuggler and their human cargo can be complicated but vital in determining whether a person can achieve certain immigration status.

“There is no waiver for smuggling strangers or someone who is not an immediate relative, but there is a waiver for smuggling immediate relatives such as child, spouse or parent,” Ibrahim said

According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the alien smuggling inadmissibility waiver only has three main eligibility criteria: “humanitarian purposes” such as not being able to get adequate medical care in their home country; “family unity”; or something “otherwise in the public interest” such as a valued member of a community.

Ibrahim said he has encountered an issue with certain clients filing a family-based green card petition.

“Whenever they were asked if they brought in a child .... even 20 years ago, they determine that that person smuggled that child,” Ibrahim said.

Children brought here before reaching the age of 16 may be eligible for temporary protection with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but parents are not as fortunate.

“The parents who brought them here in the first place, these are the ones now that are kind of paying a price. They never used to penalize parents in the past … I don’t think they were digging into it, but now they’re doing it,” Ibrahim said.

In Ibrahim’s 15 years in the field, the Gainesville attorney said it has been mostly seen in the past two years.

With such an illegal enterprise, the consequences for the people using a coyote’s services can often be more severe.

“People who are smuggled can be extremely vulnerable to human trafficking, abuse and other crimes, as they are illegally present in the country of destination and often owe large debts to their smugglers. Smuggled migrants sometimes flee violence in their home country; others simply seek better lives, economic opportunities, or to reunify with family members abroad,” according to the U.S. State Department’s website.

Ibrahim said there are informant visas that offer a possible path to citizenship for those that assist law enforcement, but many still fear speaking up.

“I could see one of the problems being that the people, the witnesses, would not testify. One of the biggest problems when it comes to the undocumented immigrant population is people are taking advantage of, because they don’t testify or go to the law enforcement,” Ibrahim said.

In Escobedo-Reyna’s case, Attorney Victoria Calvert filed a motion to dismiss the indictment because the indictment was handed down 39 days after her client’s arrest, which she alleges is a violation of the Speedy Trial Act.

“Mr. Escobedo has remained in custody during this time and has suffered great emotional trauma,” according to the motion.

Calvert did not return a phone call or email seeking comment from The Times.