The United States Customs and Border Protection say American teenagers are increasingly recruited to transport migrants illegally across the country’s Southwest border.
Border control officials say in the Sunland Park-Saint Teresa area of New Mexico last year, about one in four drivers stopped for transporting migrants were children. Most were American citizens.
Mexican youth have long guided migrants into the United States. Government officials, law experts, and local people told Reuters that recruiters trick the children. They said the recruiters tell minors that they will not face legal action because they are children.
U.S. children as young as 14 learn about the possible employment from social media and friends. They transport mainly Mexican adults.
The young drivers can earn hundreds of dollars per migrant, and local people jokingly call them “Ubers,” after the transportation company. Some young people in Sunland Park see it as a way to get ahead. The area struggles with a poverty rate three times higher than the national average.
The transport can be dangerous. Federal officials in New Mexico seem ready to enforce the law on the young drivers.
Border Patrol officers say child drivers often flee at high speeds when officers try to stop them. That can lead to chases by Border Patrol and crashes.
Gerardo Galvan is the officer in charge of the Sunland Park area. He noticed the rise in young drivers in 2021 after a 14-year-old fled officers and crashed into a Border patrol vehicle.
"They're told that if they go fast enough we're going to stop pursuing them," Galvan said.
Galvan said he was working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to charge child drivers.
Amanda Skinner is an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Las Cruces. She said her office represented four minors for transporting migrants in the first few months of 2022. In all of 2021, Skinner said there were only six such cases.
Unless the child has been in trouble before, the majority of cases involving minors result in probation until the age of 21, she said.
"We don't typically see higher-ups charged,” Skinner said, noting the large majority of arrests are of drivers.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden expects another record-breaking year for border control arrests in the Southwest. A COVID-era policy that blocked most asylum claims is set to lift in May.
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea sees no easy fix to the child driver problem.
"The last thing we want to do is criminalize our youth," said Perea. The town provides work possibilities for working-age children and is planning an outreach program to stop drivers.
Accidents on the road are a top worry. In 2020, a police chase of a migrant transport led to a deadly crash in El Paso, Texas. The 18-year-old driver was carrying ten people in a vehicle designed for five. The vehicle crashed as it tried to flee the police. Seven people were killed, including four local children.
The American Civil Liberties Union and U.S. lawmakers are calling on Border Patrol to only chase suspects at high speed if they suspect violence has or will take place.
I’m Gregory Stachel.
Andrew Hay, Nathan Frandino, and Adria Malcolm reported this story for Reuters. Gregory Stachel adapted it for our VOA Learning English readers and listeners.
Words in This Story
recruit – v. to find suitable people and get them to join a company, an organization, or the armed forces
pursue – v. to follow and try to catch or capture (someone or something) for usually a long distance or time
probation – n. a situation or period of time in which a person who has committed a crime is allowed to stay out of prison if that person behaves well, does not commit another crime
typically – adv. generally or normally
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