From the Caravan to the 'Conveyor Belt': Massive smuggling operation brings migrants to America's border

Last year there were multiple caravans made up of thousands of Central American migrants which made their way to the border. Some of the migrants caught rides on trucks or buses part of the way, but a lot of them also walked a significant portion of the journey, making it a long and difficult trip. Today the Washington Post reports smugglers are perfecting a new approach to bring people to the southern border, one which makes the journey a lot more comfortable and treats smuggling almost as a form of tourism.

Criminal organizations in Mexico have mounted a lucrative new smuggling operation that uses express buses to deliver Guatemalan migrant families to the U.S. border in a matter of days, making the journey faster, easier and safer, according to U.S. law enforcement reports and U.S. and Guatemalan officials…

Paying up to $7,000 per adult with child, families are transported to staging areas at ranches and hotels in southern Mexico, where they are organized into bus groups and rushed north along Mexican highways, “stopping only for food, fuel and bathroom breaks,” according to the U.S. law enforcement documents…

Within 72 hours of leaving the staging areas, the buses arrive at predetermined drop-off points within walking distance of the U.S. border…

U.S. officials call the system “The Conveyor Belt” and have asked Mexican authorities to help stop it.

Once they arrive at the border, they simply line up and wait to cross over and be taken in by authorities. The migrants know that, if they have children with them, they will be released into the U.S. pending a hearing and that is what they are seeking.

The pattern has become so routine that U.S. officials say some large groups form their own queues as they present their documents to agents, as if they were waiting in the arrival hall of an international airport.

“They line up as if it’s some kind of regular immigration process, in single file, like they’re checking in,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the pattern. “It’s unbelievable.”

There is concern that this new approach is making the journey faster, easier, safer and also cheaper. And that can only mean a surge in the number of people willing to make the trip. Earlier this month the Post reported that more than 70,000 migrants had crossed the border in February, the equivalent of two migrant caravans per week. If seasonal patterns from previous years are seen again this year then those numbers will go up sharply as the weather gets warmer. That could bring the total number of people caught crossing the border in FY19 close to one million, the highest figure since 2006.

There’s an ongoing battle in Congress over the president’s declaration of an emergency along the border, with Republican Senators defecting to defeat the declaration and possibly to override his veto next week. But the situation may look very different in a few months in the Border Patrol starts taking custody of over 100,000 people a month with no end in sight.