Illegal immigration along the U.S. southwest border is on the rise and getting more dangerous despite tougher security following the September 11 attacks, and lawmakers are responding by calling for reform of laws as well as a crackdown on human smuggling.

Vast, uninhabited expanses of U.S.-Mexico border lend themselves well to immigrant smugglers. Jon Dougherty/WND photo.

The San Antonio Express-News reported Wednesday the call for increased border vigilance follows the death in May of 19 Mexican migrants who perished in stifling heat in the back of a tractor-trailer rig in Texas.

Despite the deaths, “smugglers remain undaunted by this tragedy,” Thomas Homan of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Antonio told the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration.

At hearings chaired by Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., Homan said smugglers are still using rail cars and tractor-trailers to move their human cargo into U.S. cities.

The paper said worldwide, human smuggling generates some $9.5 billion annually.

Homan, who assisted with the investigation into the deaths of the 19 Mexicans, said authorities believe that last month, as many as 70 to 100 illegal immigrants paid up to $2,000 each to be smuggled to Houston.

But that trip ended prematurely on May 13, as smugglers abandoned their human cargo near a hotel in Victoria, Texas. Seventeen people died inside the trailer; two others died later at hospitals.

The paper said a federal grand jury in Houston indicted 14 people in connection with the smuggling ring and the deaths of the immigrants. Three have pleaded not guilty.

“Smugglers reap millions in profits with little likelihood of getting caught and punished. Smugglers collect fees up front and then often abandon the aliens somewhere along the trip without providing food or water,” said a statement issued by the subcommittee. “Frequently, aliens are held in ‘drop houses’ until the families pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in ransom money.

“Alien smugglers are given rather light sentences for their life-threatening and sometimes deadly acts,” the subcommittee said. “For example, a Texas man convicted of smuggling 32 illegal aliens in the back of a tractor-trailer last year was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $2,000. The trailer had an interior temperature of 46 degrees while the aliens were wearing only light clothing.”

David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for Immigration Reform, told WorldNetDaily both the U.S. and Mexico are responsible for America’s illegal-immigration problem.

“They’re both culpable for the chaos on the border,” he said. “On the one hand you have the Mexican government that all but canonizes citizens who violate U.S. immigration laws, while the U.S. government makes such a tepid effort to stop the immigration flow that it’s not taken seriously by anybody.”

Stronger measures, such as stationing U.S. troops along the nation’s borders, to assist in protecting American sovereignty, are favored by majorities of Americans, according to recent surveys. Immigration reform groups agree, as do some lawmakers, like Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. He has called on President Bush to do just that, but so far such pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Tougher border enforcement would not only curb immigrant smuggling, but it would also save lives, according to top Border Patrol officials.

“Over the past several years, unscrupulous alien smugglers have moved migrants into more remote areas with hazardous terrain and extreme conditions,” Chief Patrol Agent Jose E. Garza told the immigration subcommittee this week.

Garza oversees activities of the McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol Sector, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which patrols 284 miles of border between the United States and Mexico and 232 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico.

He said with the change in smuggling tactics, U.S. Border Patrol strategy was adjusted to compensate. The result has been less smuggling in the sector and, hence, a decrease in loss of life.

“The government of Mexico needs to be a good neighbor, encouraging its citizens – who already consume the lion’s share of legal immigrant visas – to play by our rules,” said Ray. “On the American side, we need to ensure the presence of significant interior enforcement, so that people who enter illegally understand there is a plausible chance they will be apprehended.

“That should be coupled with some significant crackdowns to prohibit rampant document fraud,” he added.

Related stories:

Congress takes up ID cards for illegals

Feds caving in to illegals?

Expert: Crack down on illegals inside U.S.

Dual citizenship for Mexicans?

Document fraud imperils homeland

Cops catch illegals, then let them go free

Mexicans to collect Social Security?

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.