Feds Aid Drop-House Crackdowns
Nearly 750 caught in 23 days
Daniel González, The Arizona Republic, Mar. 4
The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, bolstered by dozens of additional agents temporarily assigned to Phoenix, has rounded up nearly 750 undocumented immigrants and arrested 20 suspected smugglers from 13 drop houses in the past 23 days.
The response marks a dramatic change from just a year ago when local police agencies, frustrated by the federal government’s inability to deal with the illicit immigrant-smuggling trade flowing through Phoenix, frequently were forced to let undocumented immigrants and smuggling suspects go free after encountering drop houses.
On Wednesday, federal agents apprehended an additional 222 undocumented immigrants, including 15 suspected smugglers, at two Phoenix drop houses.
“There were times that we would just turn these people loose and they would just walk out into the neighborhood, ‘coyotes’ (smugglers) and all,” said Detective Tony Morales of the Phoenix Police Department. “It’s changed in that we are getting a lot more cooperation” from the government.
But while police applaud the federal crackdown on immigrant smuggling, dubbed Operation ICE Storm, they worry it will soon end.
Last week, city leaders met in Washington, D.C., with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and pleaded with them not to remove the approximately 50 additional agents temporarily assigned to Phoenix.
“We would very much like them to make those 50 agents permanent,” said Juan Martin, deputy city manager. “It definitely is a concern that once they leave we will be back to the same issue.”
Thomas DeRouchey, special agent in charge of the Phoenix office of ICE, said Operation ICE Storm will continue at least through September, a year after the federal government launched a cooperative effort to dismantle smuggling organizations. What’s more, he said, 19 additional permanent ICE agents have been allocated to the Phoenix office, although those positions still must be filled.
Tip of the iceberg
The 13 drop houses discovered recently represent only a fraction of those that exist in the Valley, police say.
“These are just the ones that we find,” Morales said.
Added Russell Ahr, a spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: “I think it’s safe to say that at any given time there are several dozen sites that are active.”
Illegal immigration typically spikes after the Christmas holidays when undocumented immigrants in search of work take advantage of cooler weather to cross the border and when farming and other seasonal work begins to pick up, officials say.
During the first two months of this year, Border Patrol agents have made 79,417 apprehensions of undocumented immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, 18,745 more than in the same two months last year.
However, Border Patrol officials say the increase in apprehensions is because of an increase in agents, not an increase in the number of migrants entering illegally.
“We are catching more people,” said Andy Adame, spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which has 1,800 agents, 150 more than last year. “The numbers are higher because we are doing a better job out there.”
Smugglers who are to be prosecuted are held in a detention facility in Florence. Undocumented immigrants are sent back to their home countries after questioning.
The proliferation of so-called drop houses in the Valley is a symptom of the booming immigrant-smuggling trade in Phoenix, which despite stepped-up enforcement at the border remains the nation’s main hub for transporting undocumented immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to other parts of the country, experts say.
“Organized smuggling of migrants from Mexico to the United States has mushroomed in the last 10 years, as a direct consequence of the U.S. strategy of concentrated border enforcement, which has significantly raised the physical risk of illegal entry,” said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
Smugglers in demand
“Smugglers are now necessary to minimize the risk of dying in the deserts as well as to evade detection by the Border Patrol,” Cornelius added. “The smugglers’ operations have expanded in response to the stronger demand for their services. The U.S. border-enforcement strategy has not been effective in deterring large numbers of unauthorized migrants from attempting entry, but it has made professional people-smugglers indispensable.”
Typically, coyotes drive to the border to pick up migrants who have crossed illegally with the help of smugglers from the same organization and then transport them to Phoenix, where the migrants are warehoused until relatives pay off their smuggling fees or until they can be transported to other parts of the country, officials say.
In most cases, smugglers are armed.
“It puts everyone at risk: The people who are being held inside, the people who live around these houses and the police who respond,” said Paul Charlton, U.S. attorney for Arizona, whose office has prosecuted more than 150 smuggling suspects since Operation ICE Storm began.
Law-enforcement officials say drop houses have existed for years. But in the past they were found in lower-income, mostly Latino neighborhoods in the Valley, where neighbors often turn a blind eye.
“They are usually stacked like pollos (chickens) in a damn hen house,” Morales said. “A lot of people don’t care. They just turn their back.”
But smugglers, in an effort to elude police, increasingly are renting houses in upscale neighborhoods to harbor undocumented immigrants. That became evident on Feb. 11 when 133 undocumented immigrants were discovered crammed in filthy conditions in a drop house at 5620 E. Shea Blvd. in a country-club area of northeast Phoenix. Another 26 undocumented immigrants from the same house also were apprehended in vans leaving the property.
In areas where drop houses have been discovered, neighbors say their sense of security has been shattered.
“This is a very private secluded oasis that no one even knows about. That’s changed. We close our doors, our garages. We don’t feel safe anymore,” said Kathy DeSanto, 38, whose house on Leith Lane was searched by police after several people escaped from the drop house on Shea.
Police say the media attention generated by the drop house on Shea helped expose a problem that has existed for years and has led to the discovery of more drop houses.
On Wednesday, police discovered 179 undocumented immigrants held by smugglers at 1425 E. Baseline Road in south Phoenix after a neighbor called police to complain about a suspected drop house. Forty-three more immigrants were found at another house at 2602 N. 66th Ave.