Will Immigrant Verdict Change Anything? Experts Say Not Likely

The judge in the trial of convicted human smuggler Tyrone Williams has given the jury a break for the holidays. Williams' punishment hearing will resume January 2nd. This comes after Williams' attorney came down sick on the first day of the hearing last week, after the jury found his client found guilty in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, this trial and its outcome are having little or no impact on the overall problem of illegal immigration, or the dangers faced by people who make the journey to the United States illegally.

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It comes as no surprise to people who study these kinds of things that the possibility that a human smuggler could be put to death if a customer dies on the trip to America has done virtually nothing to stop them. In fact, tighter border security has made human smuggling even more lucrative. Nestor Rodriguez is a professor and chair of the Department of Socialogy at the University of Houston and has spent decades studying immigration trends.

"It may affect some who hear the news and get scared but it doesn't affect the long-term professional smuggling, the one who's bringing-in people in large numbers, because it's an investment, it's company that they've developed and they make their livelihood, unfortunately for society."

Rodriguez, who has spent time in Central American countries and Mexico researching why migrants come to the United States, says desperate conditions often override the dangers they encounter getting here.

"No one accepts unauthorized migration and we know this is not the type of immigration that we want to promote. But yet you can understand the logic when you talk to the families. You see their children. Some of these families don't have meat. You're invited to dinner and they serve you one ounce of meat because it's all they have and this is their big dinner. You begin to understand, in fact, you thank God that you're not one of them that has to make this journey."

A journey that Joe Vail, who's the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, says is about something bigger, a climate of desperation in the countries where the undocumented immigrants come from.

"That's what has to be addressed too, is this level of desperation that pushes people to those extremes that they're willing to take those kinds of risks to get here to the United States. Until that's addressed in Mexico or wherever they're coming from, Central America, people are going to be desperate enough to take those risks."

The deaths of 19 undocumented immigrants in May of 2003, the deadly trip from Harlingen to Victoria that Tyrone Williams was convicted for, drew international headlines and sparked a nationwide debate on immigration. Vail says hundreds still die, but those deaths don't make headlines.

"They're coming up through Arizona across that desert and there's an average of 500 people or so dying in the desert every year in 115-degree temperatures trying to cross that desert in Northern Mexico and Arizona and nobody even talks about that."

The punishment phase of Williams trial could take several more days, with the jury then deciding whether he deserves to die for his role in the nation's deadliest smuggling attempt.

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