header icons

The Victimization of Smuggled Immigrants

Yvonne Parks is currently enrolled at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work where she is working on her Masters Degree.

The number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States is on the rise despite efforts to increase the number of border patrol officers. Immi-grants who manage to find work and achieve moderate success symbolize hope for the thousands of native Central and South Americans who live in impoverished conditions. These vulnerable populations are easily exploited by smugglers, com-monly referred to as “Coyotes.”

Typically, Coyotes prey on people from developing countries who have few economic opportunities and are desperate to improve their socioeconomic status. Coyotes exaggerate the wealth and opportunities in the United States in an attempt to exploit disadvantaged populations. Naïve adolescents who have few educational and employment opportunities buy into the myths perpetuated by the Coyotes and are eager to make the journey. Coyotes have a total disregard for the immigrant’s safety and well-being during the long trip. The passengers are subjected to inhumane conditions and often go without food and water for days. The immigrant’s plight to the United States by way of a Coyote is often tragic. Immigrants are packed into vehicles so tightly that there is hardly room to move. In 2003, a trailer bound for Houston carried seventy-four undocu-mented immigrants. The trailer was abandoned and nineteen people died from a lack of oxygen.

Immigrant smuggling rings operate like the mafia. They are organized and clandestine. The cost for one passenger can range in the thousands. Immigrant women, adolescent girls and boys, are sometimes sexually abused by the Coyotes. Upon arriving at the U.S./Mexican border, the immigrants must swim across the Rio Grande. The immigrants may drown in the torrent water or may be bitten by snakes. The lucky ones who survive will walk on to American soil cold, wet, and hungry.

The stronger immigrants who survived the journey do their best to elude immigration officers. If caught, the immigrants will face deportation because they have committed a crime against the state. This course of action is mandated in the U.N. 2000 Protocol Against Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air.

In contrast, victims who have been trafficked into the country are usually protected by the United States and able to obtain either temporary or permanent residency. U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons delineates the terms and conditions in which trafficked persons must be treated. Immigrant smug-gling is viewed as a crime against the state. Trafficking is viewed as a crime against the individual. The dichotomous immigration laws result in inequitable treatment for immi-grants and do not recognize the victimization of immigrants who are smuggled into the United States.

It is ridiculous to assume that the abuses of those who are smuggled into the country are different from those who are trafficked. Article 3 of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol states that trafficking victims are subject to, “…threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion, of abduction, or fraud and deception, of the abuse of power, or a position of vulnera-bility.” Immigrants who have been smuggled into the United States have had experiences that fit the same definition of victims who have been trafficked. They have been deceived and often lured by the Coyotes, coerced into having sex, and even sexually assaulted. The immigrants are often uneducated and most of them do not speak English.

Smuggling immigrants into the U.S. should be categorized as a crime against the individual the same as human trafficking. The rationale for the different standard may be that smuggled immigrants give their consent. While the agreement for passage may have been consensual, the immigrants did not consent to rape, dehydration, starvation and overall mistreatment. Perhaps, if the smuggled immigrants were viewed as victims instead of criminals, the United Nations human rights organizations could lobby for better laws and stiffer punishments for Coyotes.

As a social worker who works with adolescent undocumented immigrants, I am disturbed by the flaw in our international law that does not recognize the victimization of smuggled immigrants. If deportation is the best we can do for smuggled immigrants who have suffered abuses by coyotes, we have failed in the quest for social justice. There should not be a distinction between good and bad victims. There are just victims.

(Editors’ Note: Federal funds are available for those who work with “trafficked” immi-grants. However, those who receive the funds are having a hard time finding their clientele because of fear and perhaps because of the confusion described in this article.)

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 3, May-June, 2005.