Amid the routine discoveries of drugs hidden in gas tanks or Mexican citizens using falsified documents, officers who screen vehicles entering San Diego from Mexico at the ports of entry lately have been encountering another common sight: Chinese immigrants stuffed into trunks, spare tire compartments or other clandestine chambers.
This fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the ports of entry in California have apprehended more than 261 unauthorized immigrants from China. That’s nearly a 50 percent increase from the 177 the year before.
Border Patrol in San Diego County has also continued to see a large Chinese population, arresting 218 as of mid-September, including 23 Chinese nationals who were recently caught in Otay Mesa shortly after emerging from a cross-border tunnel in August. However, that is significantly less than the initial spike of 861 Chinese apprehended a year earlier.
While the numbers represent an extremely small portion of the people crossing illegally, it’s a development that has not gone unnoticed.
“We see this problem as an increasing trend with particular alien smuggling organizations and will attempt to infiltrate and dismantle the organizations at all levels,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Conover, second-in-charge of the prosecution office in San Diego.
A few years earlier, Chinese smuggling was concentrated in ports of entry along other parts of the southwestern border. This year shows a sharp shift to California’s border crossings, accounting for more than half of the port of entry apprehensions, according to data from CBP.
Recent Chinese arrivals have often headed to New York or Los Angeles. They have admitted to paying smuggling fees as high as $70,000 and often have attempted to cross the border hidden in vehicles, exposed to dangers of heat, exhaust fumes, claustrophobia and limited air supply.
And with the unusually high fees comes the increased risk of ending up in indentured servitude to pay off their smugglers.
“We see these sort of alien smuggling issues as humanitarian concerns because of both the methods of how they are smuggled in and the conditions they find themselves in once in the United States,” Conover said. “We remain concerned many Chinese immigrants pay tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the United States and find themselves paying off that debt under difficult labor circumstances for decades.”
Little is publicly known about the smuggling organizations funneling Chinese into the U.S., how they intersect with Mexican criminal groups or the routes being used.
For the most part, the drivers used for the actual border crossing are U.S. or Mexican citizens, the same lower-level recruits seen in smuggling cases of all nationalities.
A spotlight was directed at the issue earlier this year with the arrest on an unlikely smuggler, the son of Mexican mariachi singer Pepe Aguilar. Jose Emiliano Aguilar, 24, and a female passenger tried to drive four Chinese nationals in the trunk of a Chrysler 200 through San Ysidro. The Chinese later admitted to paying between $3,000 and $60,000 to be smuggled, the complaint states. Two said they were headed to New York and two to Los Angeles.
Aguilar, a U.S. citizen with mental health and substance abuse troubles, was living in Mexico when he was presented an opportunity to make money, said his defense lawyer, Jeremy Warren.
Documents filed in San Diego federal court reveal some of the most recent attempts.
About 4:30 a.m. Friday, Erik Atanasio Vasquez, a U.S. citizen, pulled up to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in a 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit. A quick inspection of the small car revealed two women in the rear cargo area. Ai Xiang Peng and Yan Zhang told authorities they were hoping to reach Los Angeles, paying up to $13,000 to get across the border.
The evening of Sept. 17, Esteban Gonzalez Barraza drove up to the Otay Mesa with his border crossing card. A Customs and Border Protection officer lifted up a rear seat cushion and saw a person’s feet. Tucked inside was Dong Gao, a Chinese man who later admitted to agreeing to a $10,000 smuggling fee. He was headed to New York.
The driver told authorities that he knew he was driving illicit cargo, for which he was to be paid $2,000, but he thought it was marijuana, according to the complaint.
A week earlier, Tyler James Yeager tried unsuccessfully to talk his way out of a secondary search at San Ysidro, according to court records. In secondary, an officer found a Chinese man hidden in the spare tire compartment of his Ford Focus. Hang Wu Chen said his family in China had agreed to pay $7,000 if he successfully entered the U.S.
On Sept. 7, Diana Ruiz Davalos, a U.S. citizen, tried to enter at Otay Mesa with her daughter when an X-ray showed anomalies in the bed of her Dodge Ram. Two Chinese were found hidden under a tool box. They told authorities they were going to pay about $60,000 for the trip and were headed to New York.
Youdong Xing, who was found July 26 at Otay Mesa in a compartment underneath a 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer, told authorities he had been concealed about an hour and was ultimately aiming for New York. He said his friend had agreed to a $16,000 smuggling fee.
Sidney Aki, CBP’s port director for the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings, said immigrants who are found in such compromising positions are checked out by medics and given oxygen and water if needed. So far no Chinese have been found in bad condition here, but the risk remains high, he said.
The immigrants caught at the ports of entry are not usually charged with criminal immigration violations themselves, but rather held as material witnesses in prosecutions against the smugglers.
When they first appear in court, they are often granted bond by a magistrate judge for their part as witnesses, but that doesn’t mean they are getting out – even if they could pay the bond.
Because they are in the country illegally, immigration law takes over, and immigration authorities detain them. While in the past some of these unauthorized immigrants may have been initially released on parole by an immigration judge, under the Trump administration most everyone is being held in custody.
Most of these human smuggling cases, be it Chinese, Mexicans or other nationalities, are on a “fast track” course, said Marilyn Gunner, an attorney who has been representing material witnesses for 25 years. The smuggler is offered a chance at a prompt plea deal and must stipulate to what the material witnesses would have testified to if the case was taken to trial. The witnesses are then released into the immigration system, with most to be repatriated unless they can argue special circumstances.
The process for the material witnesses usually takes six to eight weeks.
Large fees to pay off
Authorities have been unable to pinpoint a single overriding reason for the recent increase in Chinese nationals at the San Diego border. Many suspect it is for economic opportunities.
“Even though we have been seeing a rapid increase of the wealthy and middle income population in China, there are still a huge number of poor people there. It is appealing to these poor people to get to the U.S. to work hard and make a better living for themselves and their families,” said San Diego immigration attorney John Kang, who said he has not dealt with this recent batch of arrivals.
Aki, the port director, said the Chinese apprehended at his facilities appear to be from all walks.
“We’re seeing a variety, from cooks to Chinese restaurant workers to engineers to students. A whole plethora coming in.” The vast majority are adults, he said.
Aki said there is a substantial risk of indentured servitude with the Chinese arrivals who potentially have such large fees to pay off.
“It could be a long-term or lifetime payment. Smugglers will always have one over them,” Aki said. “‘We know you’re illegal, we can easily call the authorities and they can pick you up. If you want to stay hidden, best you pay us.’”
Gunner said she asks all of her clients, no matter where they came from, if they were promised a job in the U.S. to pay off their fees. “If they did, they were sold into slavery,” Gunner said. Even when they say no, she suspects some aren’t being truthful.
“To the smugglers you’re just a dollar sign, not human beings,” she warns her clients.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 74,000 unauthorized Chinese in California, making up about 2 percent of the state’s unauthorized population.
Years ago, a popular way for Chinese to try to illegally enter the U.S. was through airports using fraudulent documents, Aki said. Since it has become harder to bypass the security measures in identification documents today, he suspects more unauthorized immigrants are resorting to hidden compartments as their way in.
Los Angeles immigration attorney Shirley Wei said it has also been common for Chinese to overstay their tourist visas.
When it comes to infiltrating the southwestern land border between ports of entry, it has gotten harder overall, according to a report released this month by the Department of Homeland Security. The report estimates 55 to 85 percent of people trying to cross illegally are apprehended. The data also suggest that more unauthorized immigrants are being deterred from making subsequent attempts.
By Kristina Davis
San Diego Union Tribune