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The Coyote: The real reason for the decrease in apprehending undocumented immigrants at the border

By Trevor Cohen
Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The border patrol would like to claim that increased enforcement is the cause for the recent 24 percent decrease in the apprehension of undocumented immigrants. From Hold the Line in 1993 to the Secure Border Initiative of 2006, a myriad of programs have added up, increasing the number of personnel, the miles of fences, and the newest technology concentrated along the U.S. Mexico Border. These initiatives accompanied by an escalation of national fervor hostile to illegal immigration, have not been, in truth, the main reason for the decline in apprehensions. The credit for that goes to a completely different beast, the Coyote.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, CHIHUAHUA: A man walks along the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico in the Anapra area of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This area is a popular crossing spot for immigrants to ilegally cross

While increased enforcement may have increased the likelihood of getting caught, immigrants have adapted their journeys to account for the risk; they have hired professionals with a good deal of experience to navigate the difficult terrain. “Using a Coyote essentially grants success for most undocumented immigrants.”1

We find evidence of the increased reliance of coyotes in the rise in demand that has caused crossing fees to increase 5% annually. What used to be a $978 trip in 1995, can now cost upwards of $7,000 (Parks et. al. 51 and Baldwin). Additionally, when immigrants were asked about what they saw as the biggest deterrent to making the journey, 43%, cited the harsh climate, while only 23% ranked the border patrol as their biggest fear, and even fewer, 2%, viewed the minuteman as a legitimate threat. America’s favorite vigilante is just a side note on their list of concerns.

The coyote is a successful guide because he or she is more like a chameleon than anything else. They are able to transform themselves and blend in with the land through which they navigate. The Coyote is a translator negotiating “multiple languages, cultures and geo social landscapes.” They traverse Mexico, well connected and familiar with the various regional dialects. Once across the border they blend in as would any U.S. citizen. To avoid prosecution when apprehended by the border patrol, many coyotes will pretend to be one of the immigrants traveling in the group. In this case, they are simply sent back to Mexico where they are free to resume their work.

The general public consensus on the professional smuggler can take on just as many different forms. There are many “Bad Coyotes” out there who “when [their clients] get tired and say they don’t want to walk anymore, say, ‘I’m not going to argue with you. You stay here. We’re leaving.’ They don’t want to stop the trip because of one or two people.” Coyotes have also been notorious for robbing their clients or even kidnapping them. But despite the danger, there is no denying that using a Coyote is a good strategy for significantly reducing one’s risk of apprehension.

And for every bad Coyote there are plenty of good ones. In March of 2009, NPR interviewed “Paula” a self-described “good coyote.”

She is 29 years old, divorced, pretty, petite, with a gold-rimmed incisor and penciled eyebrows. She sits after church in the border city of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. You wouldn’t think that what she does for a living is to guide people through rattlesnake-infested thorn brush country, evading U.S. federal agents.

When asked why she risks her life smuggling undocumented immigrants across the border, she explained simply that she enjoys helping people. “Things are rough here [in Mexico]… They can earn a lot better living there [in the U.S.].”

And the pay must certainly sweeten the deal. She charges $1,500 for San Antonio and $1,800 for Houston, a rate lower than many others, but still very good for Mexico or the U.S. She never takes children, only accepting men and women on the nine-hour trek across the scorched Texas desert.

After they have clearly passed the Border Patrol checkpoint on highway 57, she calls her boss who comes in a van to pick up the group. At the end of day, when all the fees have been collected and her clients have been delivered to their destinations, she and her fellow smugglers go out to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate over rounds of beer and tequila.

“The next day, Paula takes a bus back to Piedras Negras, walks into her house, blows out the candle next to the saint to whom she prayed for safe passage, and waits for her next trip.”

[1] Parks, Kristen, Gabriel Lozada, Miguel Mendoza, and Lourdes G. Santos. “Strategies for Success: Border Crossing in an Era of Heightened Security.” Migration from the Mexican Mixteca a Transnational Community in Oaxaca and California. By W Wayne A. Cornelius. San Diego [u.a.: Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2 2009. 31-61. Print.

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