Susan Carroll, Houston Chronicle, February 3, 2010
Federal agents have targeted more than a dozen local bus companies they say shuttled scores of illegal immigrants to destinations across the U.S., vowing to continue cracking down on smuggling organizations’ transportation networks.
ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton was in Houston on Wednesday to announce results of a three-month operation focused on Houston-area smuggling by transportation companies, saying federal agents charged 22 suspects with conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants.
Federal agents executed nine search warrants Tuesday morning and targeted 14 businesses, including one on the city’s southeast side that Morton said used armed guards and pit bulls to hold passengers in a stash house before they were smuggled on to their final destinations.
He said the businesses investigated in the ICE operation were not legitimate transportation companies, but worked exclusively with smuggling organizations. The companies charged illegal immigrants “exorbitant” fees–up to $650 for a one-way bus ticket, he said, and transported illegal immigrants from Houston throughout the United States, to places such as Miami, Washington D.C., New Jersey and New York.
Morton said the companies avoided major highways that were likely to be patrolled by law enforcement, and traveled primarily at night. The companies paid commissions to smugglers, typically $200 to $300 each, to bring the smuggled immigrants to them, and would buy and trade passengers for fees, authorities said.
Ed Gallagher, the deputy criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, described the crackdown on the transportation companies as a large-scale operation.
He said the 22 criminal defendants were charged with conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
ICE officials also made 81 administrative arrests of suspected illegal immigrants during Tuesday’s raids of the transportation businesses, which are located primarily in east and southeast Houston. The suspected illegal immigrants found at the companies were placed in deportation proceedings, federal officials said.
Several of the companies raided on Tuesday appeared to be vacant on Wednesday. The sign outside one of the alleged stash houses on Harrisburg Boulevard advertised that the building is for lease.