SUNLAND PARK, NM, April 11 (Reuters) – 17-year-old Santi sits in his car outside stores in Sunland Park, New Mexico, watching a pulsating blue dot on his mobile phone.
People smugglers hired him to pick up migrants here, less than a mile from the Mexican border, and take them to nearby El Paso, Texas.
His bright red cellphone beeps every 15 seconds. He and immigrants share locations, as a contact on the American side have letters of help.
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A high school student with a very lackluster haircut is among a growing number of American teens in communities from Texas to California recruited to ferry immigrants crossing the southwestern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
According to the US Border Patrol, which began recording juvenile driver data in fiscal year 2021, about one in four drivers caught smuggling migrants last year in the Sunland Park-Santa Teresa area were children, and most US citizens live locally.
Mexican youth have long directed immigrants to the United States. Recruiters say Mexican and American teens are less likely to face legal consequences because they are minors, according to nearly two dozen government and law enforcement officials, lawyers, immigrant advocates and local residents Reuters spoke to.
American children under the age of 14 learn to function from social media, friends, and mainly convey Mexican adults.
Young drivers can earn hundreds of dollars per immigrant, and locals jokingly call them “Ubers.” Some see it as a way forward in Sunland Park, a working-class city with three times the national poverty rate where a third of the population is under 18 and many children live with grandparents.
But the task can be dangerous and federal authorities in New Mexico appear keen to crack down on juvenile drivers.
Teen drivers tend to flee at high speed when officers try to stop them, according to Border Patrol officials. This can lead to stalking by border guards and accidents.
Good day for trains
Santee is parked 900 feet west of a white and green US Border Patrol truck. Migrants hide in the desert 1,000 feet to the south.
Smuggling groups in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, took advantage of a cloudy night to push migrants across the rocky Mount Cristo Rey where there is no border barrier.
American agents in helicopters struggle to see migrants through the clouds, and strong winds may prevent their drones from flying, according to Santi.
“It’s a good day for pickups,” said the teenager, who asked not to be named only as Santi and whose car details were not disclosed because transporting migrants is illegal.
Field staff check migrants’ phones for information and pass it on to anti-smuggling units looking for drivers, group leaders, and local “hideouts” where migrants wait before traveling.
Gerardo Galvan, the patrol agent in charge of the Sunland Park area, noticed a spike in the number of juvenile drivers in 2021 after a 14-year-old ran away and collided with a border patrol truck.
“They were told that if they went fast enough we would stop pursuing them,” Galvan said.
Galvan said he was working with the US Attorney’s office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to indict the juvenile drivers.
The Federal Advocate’s Office in Las Cruces represented four minors for migrant smuggling in the first few months of 2022 after six cases in all of 2021, according to Federal Public Defender Aid Amanda Skinner.
Unless a child has been in trouble before, she said, the majority of juvenile cases are monitored until age 21.
“We don’t usually receive charges from higher officials,” Skinner said. “The vast majority of our cases are drivers.”
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea doesn’t see an easy solution to the juvenile driver problem. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration expects to break another year’s record for immigration arrests at the southwest border. A COVID-era policy that barred most asylum applications is due to be lifted in May.
“The last thing we want to do is to criminalize our youth,” said Beria, whose town provides job opportunities for teens and is planning an awareness program to deter drivers.
For activists like Irma Cruz, teen drivers are caught between the multibillion-dollar business of human smuggling and the US government’s policy of “militarizing” borders as a deterrent.
“It’s easy prey, and it’s being used,” said Cruz, campaign director at the Frontier Network for Human Rights, an advocacy group that also educates border residents about civil rights.
Of even greater concern are incidents such as when an 18-year-old El Paso car crashed into his packed car after being chased by Border Patrol in 2020. Four local teenagers and three migrants were killed.
The ACLU and US lawmakers have called on border guards to only chase suspects at high speed if they believe a violent felony has been committed.
“If the Border Patrol themselves know that such a high percentage of these vehicle drivers in certain areas are children recruited in this way, that should protect them from doing these kinds of dangerous vehicle pursuits,” said Shaw Drake, an ACLU attorney.
Galvan said that customers who tried to stop a car did not know if the driver was a child or an adult. He said agents should not engage in pursuits around schools and in residential areas at busy times of the day, and should obtain permission from a supervisor to continue stalking.
Santi transported the migrants for a year and was stopped by border guards, but he was not charged. He knows the stakes will be greater once he turns 18.
When a parked Border Patrol truck drives over McNutt Road, Santee heads toward an immigrant turnout.
“I don’t want to go to jail because of this,” he says.
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Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Nathan Frandino and Adria Malcolm in Sunland Park, New Mexico; Editing by Donna Bryson and Aurora Ellis
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