May 17, 2008

Human smuggling hits I-40, points beyond

Human smuggling hits I-40, points beyond
By Clint Brewer, Friday, May 16, 2008 12:53 am
Updated: Friday, May 16, 2008 12:53 am

The gray, Ford passenger van with dark windows, packed with passengers likely did not look suspicious to anyone else traveling on Interstate 40 through rural Dickson County — other than the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent that spotted it.

On May 5, ICE Agent Stephen McCormick, already on the interstate, notified officers of the 23rd Judicial Task Force of the van with Texas plates slowly making its way toward Music City, and, as evidence would prove later, other points of destination throughout the South.

The van was driven by a man named Jose Jasso-Cuevas, and this was not his first cross-country trip.

Cuevas is now somewhere in the federal prison system, charged with a violation of federal code for transporting illegal aliens, according to court documents. It is an act federal officials and others involved in combating the practice refer to colloquially as human smuggling.

It is the kind of crime that is becoming more and more prevalent in Nashville, as the city’s many interstate arteries have made Nashville somewhat of an easy destination.

“For good or for bad, we have a good interstate system,” Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said. “We are somewhat vulnerable to these types of situations because it’s easy on and easy off to get where you are going.”

McCormick’s affidavit and other paperwork in the federal prosecution of Cuevas state there were 18 passengers crammed into the non-descript van, which Cuevas told authorities he had driven to Tennessee on behalf of a “transport company” in Houston. It was not Cuevas’ first trip for that company or in this line of work.

He told authorities he had made three or four trips on behalf of the same company, and that each undocumented persons on board was to pay him $550 once they were delivered to places across the South — Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Apparently, the system for delivering the illegal immigrants was to call a telephone number when he arrived in various states to get the information about where to drop each passenger.

It would not have been Cuevas’ first time in South Carolina. He was convicted of the same federal crime in 2004 there that he is now charged with in Nashville. Court records show he was released with a sentence of time served.

Though Cuevas is only charged with crimes related to what authorities call human smuggling, Nashville has had its share of horror stories in the last year when it comes to the higher offense of human trafficking.

Human smuggling is a phrase that simply suggests transportation of undocumented aliens across U.S. borders. According to officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking involves the victimization of a person by either forced sex or labor.

Federal authorities recently secured successful verdicts and sentences against a prostitution ring using Latin American women and serving almost exclusively Mexican johns. The collection of brothels run mostly out of Nashville apartments in areas like Madison and Nolensville Road were tied to a similar operation in Memphis and prosecuted by federal authorities there. Women in both operations were forced to work as a prostitutes, servicing as many as 10 men a day for as little as $30 per man.

There is no evidence that any of Cuevas’ passengers were going to meet a similar fate, but Hall references human trafficking cases reported last year by The City Paper when he talks about the factor that access to three major interstates in Nashville has on illegal immigration.

Hall’s office is in charge of the federal 287(g) program, an offshoot of federal immigration enforcement allowing his officers to screen criminal suspects in Davidson County jails to determine their immigration status. He said both he and his staff hear “anecdotally” that smuggling operations do bring quite a few people to Nashville.

“We’ve heard about that a lot in the last year or so,” Hall said of the smuggling pipeline. “It’s the same as the drug problem, the gun problem and some may remember the prostitution problem.”

Federal authorities offer very little information when it comes to their activities on Nashville’s interstates. ICE Spokesperson Temple Black in New Orleans simply did not answer the question when asked if federal agents were on the interstate looking for human smuggling.

A second ICE agent, Jonathan Hendrix, is the agent who actually signed the affidavit in the Cuevas case describing the actions of agent McCormick. Hendrix states in the document his job includes the “investigation of cases involving the illegal transportation of aliens.”

“In general, the way it works across the country if a sheriff’s deputy or police officer sees something suspicious on the road then they contact the local agents,” Black said. “Human smuggling and human trafficking are going on all over the country. We try to do the best we can.”

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