Amid coronavirus pandemic, Texas border agents see human smuggling on the rise

Laredo Sector reports 20 percent increase in human smuggling arrests

By Hunter Davis | Fox News

LAREDO, Texas -- The Laredo Border Sector is reporting a rise in commercial trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s not all. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] agents are also battling an uptick in human smuggling cases.

Matthew Hudak, the chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol Laredo Sector, said this could be due to a number of reasons.

“The economy on this side of the border still seems tore doing pretty good, so I think that is a driving factor,” Hudak said. “As COVID kind of started, I think that was a natural pressure that was holding people back and I think as we see things starting to stabilize, people are trying to move a little more and make that journey north.”

Roughly 7,000 commercial trucks have been traveling through the World Trade Bridge Port of Entry in Laredo daily.“We are seeing slightly more trucks come through daily than we were seeing before COVID and that continues to trend upward,” Area Port Director for Port of Laredo Andrew Douglas said. “I think it is just the importance of trade as the economy continues to rebound from the pandemic.”

The Laredo Port of Entry has handled 40% of all trade with Mexico. The Border sector generated $300 billion in annual trade, the highest amount in the country.Customs and Border Protection agents also have been dealing with an increase in human smuggling cases since the coronavirus pandemic began.They said the Rio Grande has been a popular spot for illegal border crossings, including human smuggling.

“Smugglers are also doing “splashdowns” where they attempt to drive into the river to evade arrest by our agents or other law enforcement agencies,” Hudak said.Border Patrol agents have been monitoring 175 miles in the Laredo Sector looking for anyone looking to come into the country illegally.“We have made over 45,000 arrests here in the Laredo Sector and for us that represents about a 20% increase over the volume of arrests we had last year,” Hudak said. “So here in this sector, things are starting to get a little busier.”

Smugglers are getting more aggressive with their tactics. Recent photos showed smugglers using tractor-trailers and stash houses to try to bring people across the border.“We are seeing anywhere from 20 to upwards of 80 people being packed in the back of a tractor-trailer,” Hudak said. “They have no ventilation, no personal protective equipment and they are in there for several hours as they attempt to move to other parts of the country.”

Before June, agents were arresting one to 20 people a day. That number has skyrocketed since then.

“In July, August and now into September, we have seen days here where we have over 360 arrests in one day,” Hudak said. “This year, we have intercepted 94 stash houses and arrested over 1,700 aliens.”

Arrests are now posing more of a threat than usual as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“It is immensely dangerous in the first place and then we add the threat of COVID to all of the things that we do right now, it’s making this job a little more critical and also a little more dangerous,” Hudak said. “When we get these smuggling loads, they don’t have masks, they have not washed their hands or done any of the things we need to be doing, generally for days, so it is a really dangerous environment for COVID.”

Since March, nearly 20 migrants have tested positive for COVID-19. The current protocol has forced any agent coming in contact with an infected migrant to quarantine; because of that, 30 agents have been placed on a quarantine status.

“When we have to put them in that status, it is a challenge for us and that means the other agents have to pick up that space that is left behind,” Hudak said.Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a news conference in August that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 10 CBP agents have died due to the virus.