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Smuggling Or Trafficking? Lines Are Blurred With Latest Bust

As federal, state and local officials sort through the facts of a massive human smuggling bust here in Houston this week, some leaders say the lines between smuggling and human trafficking have been blurred.

With members of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee listening at a hearing on human trafficking at Texas Southern University, the Houston Special Agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement updated officials on how the investigation is shaping up.


KHOU photos: More than 100 people held hostage in stash house

Brian Moskowitz says one thing is clear:

“This is an alien smuggling organization. This is human smuggling at this point. Now does that mean that at some point in the future the people who were smuggled in could wind up as trafficking victims? Absolutely, that possibility always exists; although, we may never know it.”

Houston police helped rescue 115 undocumented immigrants stuffed inside a small stash house, including 17 children. Chief Charles McClelland says although it is much larger than usual, this week’s case isn’t unique.

“The individuals could not get outside of the structure. It had deadbolt locks that (were) locked from the outside. So they were just captive as human hostages or slaves. But this is a typical smuggling case.”

Houston has become a major hub for both human smuggling and human trafficking, which usually involves women and children forced into the sex trade. Its proximity to the Mexican border and access to major interstate highways makes it an ideal staging ground for smugglers and traffickers.

Steve McCraw is the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. His troopers are constantly on the look-out for both human smugglers and traffickers.

“Anytime when the business model of the smuggler is to hold them hostage and ransom them back to family members, threaten them with cutting off parts and so forth and so on, is that smuggling or is it trafficking? Whatever it is, it’s wrong and certainly they’re victims and they ought to have the same rights as any victims.”

Because it hasn’t been established yet that any of the undocumented immigrants in this latest case were being trafficked for sex or other forced labor, they may not have the same legal protections as those who have been. Again, ICE’s Brian Moskowitz.

“They’re not eligible at this stage for what we call continued presence, which is something that we give as ICE or a T-Visa, which is for severe victims of trafficking. But this U-Visa option will be explained to them. Now I realize there’s challenges with that. That’s a process that’s handled by USCIS, but that is all going on as we speak.”

The U-Visa is set aside for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental of physical abuse and are willing to help authorities in criminal investigations.

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