The "Smuggling Trail" leading into Phoenix, Arizona on a winter morning. Photo courtesy Gabriella Sanchez

Following the Coyote Trail

I am driving along the strip of highway that connects the manicured and pristine grounds of the luxury resorts of Tucson, Arizona on my way to Phoenix this winter morning.  The architecture and landscaping of this segment of the desert, even while framed by the simple beauty of the wildflowers growing to the side of the road, are reminders of the state’s history of segregation and divisiveness.  Once the touristic and residential complexes aesthetically built to match the mountains, the doggie spas and the golf courses end, the other side of Arizona emerges. This slice of the desert defined by Interstate 10 and State Highway 79 takes drivers through at least five of the state’s correctional facilities (Tucson, Marana, Eyman, Florence and CACF), along with no less than three other centers (Eloy, Florence and Pinal) used by local law enforcement agencies to house irregular migrants as part of their agreements with the federal agency in charge of immigration.

The "Smuggling Trail" leading into Phoenix, Arizona on a winter morning

The “Smuggling Trail” leading into Phoenix, Arizona on a winter morning. Photo courtesy Gabriella Sanchez

This is also the section of the desert that during most of the 2000s was described by local law enforcement agencies and the media as the nation’s top corridor for human smuggling; the roads leading into Phoenix, the city infamously referred by Senator John McCain as “the number 2 kidnapping capital of the world,” and to Maricopa County – the land where headless corpses, as stated by Governor Jan Brewer, “are just lying out.”  This is Arizona, the state which attracted the attention of the international community as propositions seeking to legalize racial profiling practices were approved by its legislature and signed into laws by its governor, all in an attempt to maintain the generations-long history of race-based segregation at the core of the state’s history.

Arizona, primarily as a result to changes on border and immigration enforcement policy in the mid and late 1990s, had in fact become by the turn of the century the main point of entry for irregular migrants in the US – and the most lethal.  The majority of the scholars exploring the impact of such changes have vigorously worked at documenting the deaths of thousands of border crossers due to exposure to the elements, accidents, violence and law enforcement abuse. Yet a virtually ignored implication has been the emergence – and eventual transformation– of the local human smuggling market in the state.

Historically, coyotes or polleros have been behind the transit of men and women seeking to cross the US-Mexico border clandestinely. Often demonized by media, law enforcement and academics as predatory and violent, smuggling facilitators coordinate the transportation of those unable to secure the protections provided by state sponsored mechanisms like visas and passports. Contrary to widely held popular perceptions, smuggling is not inherently violent. It is most of times uneventful if precarious, and relies largely upon the actions of men and women working individually and locally, with no intervention of transnational criminal organizations like drug or weapon trafficking groups.

By the mid-2000s, Arizona had become the main point of entry for irregular migrants in the nation, and Maricopa County one of the US’ top human smuggling hubs.  This morning, while the roads leading into America’s once feared human smuggling centers are mostly empty, the memories remain.  At the height of the paranoia over the activities of human smugglers in the state, almost every local law enforcement agency allocated –and fought over –resources to carry out immigration-related duties.  Checkpoints in predominantly working class, immigrant neighborhoods became commonplace, as well as acts of hyper-surveillance involving the following of Latino women and children to and from school, work and church by law enforcement officers. Drivers were systematically profiled on the basis of their vehicles, choice of clothing, even musical preferences. Unannounced inspections of human resources files at businesses known to employ minority workers created an overall sense of persecution and terror, justified by the well documented abuses in which some law enforcement agencies engaged. Videos of children being separated from their parents as these were taken into custody following traffic stops that had revealed their status as irregular migrants went viral. All of these events left imprinted in the collective imagination of Americans nationwide – but specially on that of Latino Arizonans– a feeling of insecurity and fear.  But was irregular migration truly that widespread? Was it really attributable to human smuggling networks, and were police responses ultimately warranted?

The measures carried out by law enforcement agencies were indeed effective in quantitative terms: they led to a record number of arrests.   However most of these did not involve irregular migrants crossing the Arizona desert or the feared smuggler gangs, and most likely had little impact upon the safety of those traveling clandestinely.  Local immigration enforcement efforts have instead been effective at facilitating the arrests of thousands of local residents – undocumented parents of US born children, legal permanent residents with outstanding traffic or petty crime related warrants, US citizens profiled as undocumented, even minor children –who have been at the center of race-based profiling and discrimination efforts in the state.

Have Arizona’s actions against irregular migration impacted the smuggling market? The question is initially, hard to answer. What we know is that arrests involving extra-legal border crossings along the Arizona/Sonora section of the border have reached record lows, and that most crossings involving non-Mexican border crossers have now moved to an even more multifaceted corridor along the Border: Southeast Texas, where the number of deaths continues to raise amid new questions over the nature and the direction of immigration enforcement.

And who are the men and women leading border crossers in their journeys? The answers may surprise us.

Gabriella Sanchez is a research fellow at the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University and author of Border Crossings and Human Smuggling (Routledge, 2014).

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