Human Smuggling from Mexico

By · Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Today I spoke with Ricardo, a family man and business owner who turned to the crime of human smuggling as a strategy to cope with the pressures of debt. America’s financial crisis had hit Ricardo’s small construction company hard, and in a panic over how he would sustain his business and his family, he ceded to the temptation of earning what he saw as an easy thousand dollars. That decision led to his felony conviction and prison term.

Ricardo was in the first stages of a four-month sentence. The pains of confinement tormented him every evening as he lay on his steel rack missing his wife and children. Since prison has become a way of life for me, I appreciated Ricardo telling me his story and how the experience was affecting him. Ricardo was 35 years old and had never had an interaction with law enforcement before this event. He had been married to Wendy for eight years, and together they had two young children. Ricardo had graduated from a Southern California high school and supported his family as a licensed contractor.

During the construction boon of the past decade, Ricardo’s business thrived. He worked alone, specializing in remodeling work on residential housing projects. Wendy assisted him with paperwork and other administrative duties, and the family business generated a comfortable income.

Like millions of other Americans, Ricardo leveraged that income by purchasing luxuries on credit. The debt from those purchases felt manageable while business was good, but when customers restrained their construction spending, Ricardo’s income plummeted. His mountain of debt brought  stress that clouded his thinking, and when an acquaintance told Ricardo about an opportunity to earn easy money by driving Mexican citizens across the border into the United States, Ricardo listened.

Ricardo’s acquaintance, Carlos, explained that the Mexican citizens had family members in the United States who would pay for safe transportation. Carlos said that he had brought several of those people into the United States illegally by creating a secret compartment in his vehicle. The Mexicans would hide in the secret comparment while Carlos drove across the border. Once in the United States, the sponsoring family members would pay a transportation fee of $1000. If Ricardo had an interest in providing the same type of transportation service, Carlos offered to put him in touch with a broker who represented Mexicans who would pay the fee to bring their family members into the United States.

Ricardo said that the offer intrigued him. He was out of work and unsuccessful in finding jobs that would allow him to meet his monthly obligations. He took a test run by driving south into Mexico and crossing back into the United States through Tijuana. The lines were long and the border patrol agent waived him through without hassle. Ricardo tried it again, and no one resisted him.

As he drove the two hours home, Ricardo thought about steps he could take to modify his truck to create a secret compartment. By manufacturing a secret compartment, Ricardo reasoned that he could transport one person each trip into the United States. If he could make enough trips, he would free the pressure of all his debts. Ricardo decided to modify his truck.

With the modification complete, Ricardo spoke with the broker and let him know that he was available to transport people into the United States. The broker put him in touch with a 29-year-old woman, Rosa. Rosa had been living illegally in the United States. She was married and had two American born children. She had returned to Mexico to attend a funeral for her grandmother. After being denied a visa to enter the United States, Rosa agreed to pay the transportation fee for Ricardo.

Although Ricardo had not attracted any suspicion on his practice runs, when he tried to enter the United States with Rosa in the secret comparment, U.S. border patrol agents stopped him. Upon inspection of the vehicle, they discovered the secret compartment with Rosa curled up inside. Thus began Ricardo’s problems with the criminal justice system.

After questioning at the border, the agents transported Ricardo to the high rise federal holding center known as Metropolitan Correctional Center, San Diego. Ricardo stands at average height and he is of stout build, but when he heard what sounded like madness coming from within the prison cells, he said that he felt a bit anxious about being locked inside. The unknown of what was to come frightened him.

Ricardo did not have financial resources to hire an attorney, and as an indigent defendant, a public defender came to interview him. Her name was Bridgit, and she walked Ricardo through the judicial options available to him. He cuold contest the charges, she said, but in all likelihood a jury would convict him. The penalty for smuggling people into the United States illegally could expose Ricardo to 10 years in prison. In light of his lacking any criminal history, Bridgit suggested that Ricardo agree to a fast-track proceeding. Through such an option, Ricardo would plead guilty and face a sentence that would not exceed 18 months. Ricardo agreed without hesitation.

The experience of being separated from his family and living in confinement humilated Ricardo. His hopes to dig himself out from debt had brought disaster. Not only did he fail to raise any money from the venture, he was locked in jail and facing a lengthy separation from his family. When he spoke with Wendy over the phone to explain the predicament he had created, both cried over the phone. The news shocked her, though she totally supported him.

After 11 days, the judge released Ricardo on a signature bond. He spent the next seven months at home, making every arrangement possible to provide for his family during the time he would be apart. At the sentencing hearing, Ricardo tried to express his remorse for having disappointed his family. Tears welled up in his eyes and he couldn’t bring the words out of his throat. The ordeal felt as if it were paralyzing him. He had tried to wrap his mind around the worst-case scenario of 18 months, but he held onto hope for something better.

The judge seemed sympathetic, Ricardo said. After listening to Ricardo’s plea for leniency, the judge made some favorable comments on the defendant’s long work history, stable family, and community support. “You did break the law, however,” the judge said sternly, “and for that I must send you away.”

When Ricardo heard the judge say those words, he lost all ability to comprehend further. A haze came over his mind, making everything a blur. The judge kept talking from the bench, but Ricardo could not register anything other than thoughts about being separated from Wendy and from their children.

His lawyer eventually led him out of the courtroom. Ricardo said he still didn’t know what had happened, but when he saw his family members gathering around him in tears, he expected that the sentence must have been severe. His lawyer finally explained. The judge had sentenced Ricardo to serve four months in prison, and a four-month term of home confinement would follow immediately.

A few weeks later, Wendy drove Ricardo to the prison in Taft. Since he would only be away for four months, Ricardo said that he would prefer not to visit. He didn’t want to traumatize his family by allowing them to see him in prison clothes.

When I spoke with Ricardo, he had just completed his first month as a prisoner in Taft Camp. A counselor had assigned him a janitorial job that kept his days busy with a rag and a mop, but he felt bored, lonely, and disappointed in himself for having made a decision that had resulted in the separation from his family. During that first month of imprisonment, Ricardo dropped 20 pounds and he intended to lose more. The time alone brought reflections on how he had been living his life and changes he wanted to make when he returned home.

One month of imprisonment has been difficult on Ricardo. He sympathized with prisoners who were serving more severe sentences, or prisoners who already had served several years, though such thoughts did not diminsh the pain he felt at being apart from his wife and children. Not knowing that he could wear his wedding band in prison, he had left it home. Ricardo said he was constantly pressing his ring finger, and with the ring missing, he longed for his wife all the more.

The nights spent on his rack convinced Ricardo that he wanted to live his life differently upon release. He would work harder to show Wendy how much he cherished their marriage; he would carve time from his schedule to attend field trips and other events with his children. He wrote six letters home each week, and he cried when he read the letters he received in the mail.

The time Ricardo would serve in prison, I assured him, would pass much more quickly than he realized. The first portion hurt the most. As he developed goals and a routine, the weeks would pass much faster. He said he would use his remaining time to read books that would introduce him to parenting and family leadership. Ricardo wants nothing more than to return home as a better husband and father.

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