The Arizona desert near the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
Undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S are often both aided and exploited by "coyotes" - the most widely used term for those who smuggle undocumented immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Broadly, this term "refer[s] to a person who is employed by someone else to help her/him evade or fulfill, by illicit means, some legal-bureaucratic requirement imposed on her/him by the government," explained David Spener, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
"The idea of a coyote as someone to help you evade regulation by or receive some sort of dispensation from the government dates back to Spanish colonial times," he explained, with the earliest example "of coyote with reference to Mexican clandestine border-crossing" arising in the 1920s.
Spener noted that today "coyotes" perform three functions for immigrants: " Helping migrants overcome legal-bureaucratic obstacles imposed by the state that might otherwise prevent their migration. ...  The recruitment, whether legal or illegal, of Mexican workers by U.S. employers ...  The provision of clandestine border-crossing services."
Christian leaders working on both sides of the U.S. border shared with EthicsDaily.com what they've learned about "coyotes" from immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.
The immigrant journey is perilous even when a "coyote" is hired, explained Juan Aragon, Hispanic ministries' strategist at the West Virginia Baptist Convention.
If you become ill, injured or lost, a "coyote" is unlikely to offer much, if any, assistance. "Sometimes ['coyotes'] don't really know the way, and they promise people from poor communities that they will bring them safe, but all they want is money," he said.
Victor Gomez, pastor of two United Methodist Church congregations in Virginia, also noted the "hit or miss" nature of paying a "coyote." "Some follow up what they said they would do, while others get their money and leave folks astray in the middle of nowhere."
The significant cost was consistently noted.
"Twenty years ago, the going rate charged by 'coyotes' was $600," shared Tim Long, an American Baptist Churches missionary in Baja California, Mexico. "It is said that today's minimum charge is $4,000, which means traversing a route through the Arizona desert. The minimum charged for passage through the California border could be as high as $12,000."
While desert crossings are still common, many folks, he said, now cross at regulated border crossings using altered documents purchased from "coyotes."
Aragon noted a similar trend in cost. "About 10 years ago, 'coyotes' would charge ... between $1,500 and $3,000. That's for somebody from Mexico. It's more expensive for Central Americans. Today, a 'coyote' may cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000."
Required fees vary widely in this unregulated industry, with "coyotes" often exploiting immigrants' desperation and desire to extract higher fees.
Aragon met a man in the U.S. who said he paid $6,000 for help getting from Guatemala to the U.S. a decade ago. The family mortgaged their home to fund the journey that involved a six-day trek through the desert.
Gomez noted the frequency with which extra fees are demanded during the journey. "Folks save all their money and often give all to the coyotes with the hope to find a better life. When they do not have money, they are detained in a house in the middle of nowhere. There, they have to call relatives or friends to obtain the extra charges, otherwise they can be killed."
"Coyotes" carry out their business through an extensive web of relationships, from personal connections in local communities to regional cartel/organized crime networks.
Aragon said he'd heard of agricultural contractors arranging for "coyotes" to bring workers across the border. "In some cases, the contractors pay the way and then people have to work until they pay the debt," he explained.
The entire smuggling industry "is made possible by organized crime with cartels in charge of certain zones," Long said. "The 'coyotes' are part of the system and work for cartels. Payments must be made to the cartel for their services offered."
Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of missions and Hispanic ministries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas, noted that "coyotes" have "relationships with federal governments (Latin America), state police (Latin America), local authorities (Latin America), cartels and a few U.S. border agents."
Some "coyotes" Zapata has met are now Christians, but they still smuggle people due to prior connections to criminal networks overseeing smuggling operations. "They cannot leave the business or else they will lose their lives," he said.
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