Human smugglers now charge vastly more for clandestine journeys into the United States than just a few years ago. Checkpoints like this one in Falfurrias, Tex., on the highway north from the border toward San Antonio, help explain why.
Migrants coming from Central America regularly pay more than $10,000, and Mexicans often fork over $6,000 just to cross into the United States and continue on to their intended destination. As the costs of human smuggling soar, the smuggling networks have greater resources to evade detection.
The Border Patrol is charged with stopping migrants from illegally crossing over the southwestern frontier and, even more important, from getting into the interior of the country. Getting through the heavily patrolled 100-mile zone beyond the border can be just as difficult as getting into the country.
So while people often think of the border as akin to a goal line that migrants are trying to cross, in many ways it’s more like the 50-yard line.
Border Patrol takes what it calls a “layered approach.” Here in the Rio Grande Valley, that starts with patrol boats on the muddy river. Next are 18-foot steel fences set back from the river, where agents patrol in trucks. In more remote areas, they use all-terrain vehicles or horses.
Border Patrol officers smooth the dirt by the fence — almost like a Zamboni at an ice rink — with giant tires pulled behind a truck, so that later they can see fresh tracks left by migrants.
Smugglers sometimes wrap migrants’ shoes in scraps of fabric to try to obscure their footprints. And guides increasingly take the trouble to dress their charges in camouflage for the border crossing.
At gaps in the steel fence, there are hidden cameras and sensors to alert patrols. I drove up to an opening in the fence between Brownsville and McAllen a couple of weeks ago and was discovered almost immediately by an agent. He ran my license plate and learned that it was a rental car, so he pulled me over. Smugglers often use rental cars, he said, in hopes of avoiding suspicion.
Smuggling networks rent houses or mobile homes, cover the windows and begin cycling migrants through dwellings that often are filthy and packed. American investigators call these flophouses on both sides of the border “stash houses,” the same term they use for places where drugs are kept. Houston police raided a stash house in 2014 that had 115 people inside, including children as young as 5, with no hot water and just one toilet.
Before moving a group of migrants, smugglers check their route for signs of law enforcement, said Paul A. Beeson, director of the Homeland Security Department’s joint task force overseeing the southwest border. “They are running countersurveillance on us,” he said.
But many smuggled migrants are caught at highway checkpoints like the one in Falfurrias, nearly 70 miles north of the border and one of the Border Patrol’s last lines of defense. On a busy day, more than 30,000 vehicles pass through Falfurrias, and more undocumented migrants are apprehended there than at any other checkpoint in the country, said Rene Quintanilla, a supervisory agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector headquarters.
There, agents have to rely on their instincts, Mr. Quintanilla said. In just seconds, they decide whether to send a vehicle, and its passengers and cargo, for a more thorough inspection.
Agents are trained to observe incongruities when questioning a nervous driver, like a single key in the ignition — sometimes a sign of a vehicle being used for smuggling, since most people’s car keys jangle on chains with house keys, work keys or knickknacks — or when cars ride low in the back where migrants may be hiding.
When Border Patrol agents started looking for cars sagging in the back, Mr. Quintanilla said, smugglers started installing heavy-duty suspensions. “Some of these vehicles are modified to hide known or used smuggling techniques,” he said.
In the 1980s, guides trying to connect drivers with migrants coming out of the brush would often leave an X or other mark along the side of the highway. Now cellphones and mapping apps allow for carefully choreographed pickups and drop-offs without leaving such obvious traces for agents to follow.
“I’ve seen loads that used a combination of cellphones, sat phones and two-way radios, all three, to pull these off,” said Benjamine Huffman, chief of strategic planning and analysis for the Border Patrol.
It was so hot the day a photographer and I visited that one of the agents’ dogs kept making a beeline for water when he was supposed to be sniffing out concealed humans and trafficked drugs. The agents have to endure exhaust fumes for entire shifts, day after day, that made me lightheaded in just an hour.
Smugglers hide migrants in the trunks of cars, stacked in the beds of pickup trucks and covered with tarps or even locked inside toolboxes in the beds of pickup trucks. Agents have found migrants in the backs of dump trucks and buried in sawdust. Migrants have crammed themselves into all manner of compartments built to avoid detection.
Transporting unauthorized migrants is a federal crime, and drivers expect to be well compensated for their risk. The payments vary, from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 per migrant. Criminal complaints reviewed by The New York Times and interviews with law enforcement officials show that not all drivers are members of smuggling networks. Some are recruited on Craigslist or Facebook; some drive a group to settle a debt.
One woman, who was stopped last May on a ranch road in West Texas with three undocumented immigrants in her silver Mercedes, told officers she was expecting $6,000 to drive them two hours from Kinney County to San Antonio. She was sentenced to eight months in prison and three years of probation.
Increasingly, smugglers are relying on 18-wheelers, locking migrants in the trailers, often hidden behind the loads of cargo.
In trailers that are refrigerated to keep produce fresh, lightly clothed migrants — some sweaty from the trek or wet from the Rio Grande — can freeze. More often, the unrefrigerated metal containers turn dangerously hot in the South Texas sun. In the last two months, Border Patrol agents have disrupted 42 smuggling attempts along the southwest border involving tractor-trailers, discovering 406 people. Last July, 10 migrants died after traveling in the back of a truck in San Antonio’s scorching heat. The driver was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Migrant advocates are often harshly critical of Border Patrol tactics, but agents say they are protecting the migrants from dangerous smuggling rings. “That’s what they see them as: a dollar sign,” said Frank Garza, a supervisor at the Falfurrias checkpoint. “Not as a person, just an amount.”
Efforts to evade detection at the border and at checkpoints are nothing new. Illegal immigration peaked in 2000, when more than 1.6 million people were caught trying to sneak across the border. Spectacular examples have included people hiding in an engine block, behind a dashboard and even inside a passenger seat.
Under President Trump, there is intensified emphasis on catching people entering illegally. Here in Falfurrias, Border Patrol is building an even bigger checkpoint just up the road, redoubling its efforts to uncover hidden migrants.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.