An illegal immigrant from Guatemala was sentenced to seven months in jail late last month for paying human smugglers to bring his 16-year-old brother-in-law into the U.S., in what officials say is one of the first cases to punish a relative for enticing a family member to make the dangerous trek north.
Miguel Pacheco-Lopez admitted he paid $6,100 to “coyotes,” as the smugglers are called, to bring his wife’s brother into the U.S. last year. He expected the teen — identified in court documents by the initials S.M. — to pay the majority of the money back at 8 percent interest.
The prosecution was part of a groundbreaking strategy to try to slow the stream of unaccompanied alien children by going after the people they are trying to join in the U.S.
“This criminal jeopardized his own family members by paying human smugglers,” said James C. Spero, special agent in charge at the Tampa office of homeland security investigations. “He endangered a child’s life with a dangerous and unlawful journey into the United States, and now he will be held accountable.”
Pursuing people who are paying to have their family members smuggled to the U.S. has always been among the trickiest parts of the immigration debate.
Immigrant rights activists say they are often trying to help relatives escape terrible conditions back home and should be viewed as part of a humanitarian mission.
But analysts who have pushed for stiffer policies toward illegal immigration cheered the conviction and sentencing.
“It’s long overdue, and it’s something that they have to do to deter people from paying smugglers,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’s dangerous for the kids, not to mention that it enriches a criminal enterprise.”
She said the courts have tied the administration’s hands on many other areas of enforcement, such as the ability to detain and quickly deport illegal immigrant children, so some other deterrent was needed.
President Trump teased the policy in his initial immigration executive orders. As homeland security secretary, John F. Kelly elaborated on the plan in a Feb. 20, 2017, implementation memo. He said the parents were putting their children through unimaginable hardship on the journey north.
Beatings, killings and rape are reportedly common — so much so that some teen girls preparing to make the journey would take birth control to avoid becoming pregnant from rape along the way.
“Regardless of the desires for family reunification, or conditions in other countries, the smuggling or trafficking of alien children is intolerable,” Mr. Kelly wrote in the memo.
He ordered his agencies to consider deporting or even criminally charging those who paid the children’s way.
Bryan Johnson, an immigration lawyer who penned a letter to Mr. Kelly last year asking him to drop the policy, said he had heard of no other conviction like Pacheco-Lopez
“DHS is using this one conviction in hopes that it deters future unaccompanied minors from entering USA. Same philosophy as under Obama but with more extreme tactics,” Mr. Johnson told The Washington Times. “And, just as in Obama administration, this deterrence-at-all-costs policy may have temporary effects, but in long term it will do little to nothing to stop unaccompanied minors from coming so long as the conditions there — extreme violence and poverty — persist.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to provide more details about the case, but Pacheco-Lopez turned out to be the thread that unraveled a much bigger illegal immigration operation.
Court documents show that when agents went to first talk to Pacheco-Lopez, the address they were given in Jacksonville turned out to have at least a half-dozen other illegal immigrants living there and working at a Japanese steakhouse along with Pacheco-Lopez.
The owners of Fujiyama Steakhouse and Sushi Lounge, a husband and wife from China, were paying illegal immigrants low wages but letting them live in the crowded house. They were convicted and sentenced to probation.
The case illustrated some of the other difficulties presented by the surge of illegal immigrants.
Pacheco-Lopez’s native language is K’iche’, which is Mayan. Authorities had to find qualified K’iche’ interpreters. Those interpreters didn’t speak English well, so they translated Pacheco-Lopez’s words into Spanish. ICE officers who were fluent in English and Spanish did the final translation into English.
Agents and prosecutors said they weren’t surprised that just one person has been convicted of paying for smuggling.
One immigration agent said federal officers have a tough time getting prosecutors to take the cases. The agent said it can be difficult to prove the trail of cash and that prosecutors may be reluctant to take on cases in which the illegal immigrants may seem sympathetic.
The agent said the Florida case might have been easier to make because Pacheco-Lopez was charging his brother interest, suggesting a business transaction more than a family unification effort.
Parents’ and other family members’ involvement in smuggling has been a sore spot for authorities for years.
In one groundbreaking 2013 opinion, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen blasted the Obama administration for complicity in human smuggling. He said that by delivering illegal immigrant children to their parents — usually also in the U.S. illegally — the government was effectively “completing the criminal mission” of the smugglers.
He was reviewing a case in which an illegal immigrant mother living in Virginia paid for her daughter to be smuggled into the country. The woman attempting the smuggling was caught after using one of her daughters’ birth certificates for the illegal immigrant girl.
But Homeland Security delivered the girl to her mother anyway. Judge Hanen said he was stunned that Homeland Security didn’t arrest or even try to deport the mother.
“The DHS, instead of enforcing our border security laws, actually assisted the criminal conspiracy in achieving its illegal goals,” he wrote.
Judge Hanen went on to become the first to invalidate the 2014 Deferred Action for the Parents of Americans policy that Mr. Obama tried to create. DAPA would have expanded the 2012 DACA deportation amnesty to include parents of U.S. citizens, which would have covered millions of illegal immigrants.