Dennis Wilson spent most of his days in early 2017 at an Exxon station in Corpus Christi, Texas, panhandling so he could buy food and meth. He'd arrive in the morning, park his walker between the ice machine and the Redbox movie kiosk and hold out a striped plastic cup.
One day, after a few hours, Wilson took stock of what he'd collected: about $50. Not enough, but a start. He'd been staying with friends after months of sleeping wherever he could find a safe place on the streets: under a freeway overpass, on a bus station bench, in a tent pitched in gritty sand. Then 54, he'd grappled with unstable housing since losing his job as a kitchen supervisor at Denny's and succumbing to the addiction he'd battled from adolescence.
As Wilson was settling back in, two heavyset young men approached. One handed him $3; the other, $2. Then they presented him an intriguing offer: Would he help them transport farm equipment for $100 a day? Wilson was unimpressed. "I make that in a couple hours just sitting on my butt," he said.
The men countered with $500. Wilson held firm. Finally, they went to $1,000 a day, a sum Wilson couldn't refuse.
The men introduced themselves as brothers from the Rio Grande Valley. They informed Wilson he'd need to start work right away, moving equipment from a town near the Mexican border to a ranch in Kingsville, Texas, past the US Border Patrol checkpoint. Wilson called the friend he'd been staying with to let her know not to wait up. Then he gathered his walker, cane, jacket and cigarettes and tucked his 6-foot-1-inch frame into the back of the brothers' SUV.
With music playing on the radio, the trio set out for the border. Wilson mentioned that he didn't have a driver's license, but the brothers told him not to worry-he wouldn't be going far. From time to time, they held sidebars in Spanish, until one of them paused to ask Wilson if he understood. "Poquito español," he responded-he had a little Spanish. The brothers stuck to English after that.
As the border drew closer, a question gnawed at Wilson: What am I getting myself into? It seemed too good to be true$1,000 for a day of unskilled labor. But he wanted badly to believe. It had been so long since he'd had a lucky break.
After a few hours on the road, the group arrived at the Texas Inn & Suites in Edinburg, a sleepy community about 30 minutes north of the border. The brothers helped Wilson check into his room then asked whether they could bring him anything. Meth and marijuana, Wilson replied. The pair returned a few hours later with drugs, a new jacket, a pair of shoes and a razor. Wilson was to report for work dressed as a proper Texas gentleman.
At 4:30 the next morning, the three men drove to the outskirts of town, where Wilson boarded a truck hitched to the equipment he'd been assigned to tow: a large hay baler. He got on the road and headed north. An hour later traffic slowed to a halt; he'd reached the Falfurrias checkpoint. Federal law gives border agents the authority to conduct warrantless searches within 100 miles of "any external boundary of the United States." Texas has 18 of the 35 permanent checkpoints where these searches are often conducted; they form a second, internal border some 70 miles north of Mexican soil.
A border agent in a green uniform motioned for Wilson to stop. He felt a pang of anxiety, mindful that he was driving without a license, but after a cursory inspection the agent waved him through. As Wilson drove on, he got a call from the brothers, who'd been driving alongside him; a metal flap had come loose and was banging against the hay baler's base.
Wilson pulled over and mounted the machinery. When he looked down, he was stunned to discover people in its hollow bowels. The equipment had apparently been gutted to make room for them. There were about 10 in the group, some sitting shoulder to shoulder on a plywood bench. Wilson did his best to avoid eye contact, but he couldn't help but notice that a few of them looked to be quite young. "What in the world?" he recalls thinking. "I freaked out."
The last leg of the global smuggling route leading to the US is often shepherded by people like Wilson: Americans who need the money. Each year, thousands of US citizens are found guilty of human smuggling; in fiscal 2021, they made up three-quarters of the total number convicted in federal courts. Among the defendants are teenage boys with newly issued driver's licenses, young moms who make the trips with their kids in the car, and a striking number of homeless men. One public defender told me the smugglers are often almost as vulnerable as the migrants themselves.
In northern Mexico, the people who guide migrants, known as coyotes, are often closely aligned with cartels and other criminal organizations, which ultimately control the operations. But once migrants have reached US soil, the job mostly consists of driving them from place to place until they're past the final checkpoint. The system is more impromptu, run through small-time coyotes who may hear of jobs through friends of friends or on social media. "Anyone willing to ma quick cash $2,000.00 message me," read one Facebook post mentioned in a recent criminal case. A defense lawyer in Corpus Christi told me he represented a teen who'd been recruited on TikTok.
The human smuggling industry naturally centers on the Rio Grande Valley, where the border is marked by a river rather than a fence. It's also a place of brutal privation, home to some of the poorest people in Texas. For men and women who make the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, if they have a job at all, the promise of quick, easy money is difficult to resist-especially for an offense that often feels innocuous to them. Many border residents regularly cross into Mexico to visit a grandparent, see the dentist or work on the family ranch. They struggle to see any harm in helping someone else make the journey.
For years, according to two lawyers and a veteran Border Patrol agent who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press, federal prosecutors in South Texas typically only charged drivers who were transporting large groups, so long as no one had been harmed or endangered and the driver hadn't been encountered before. That led some drivers to believe they could transport a few small groups with little risk, says one of the lawyers, Simon Purnell, who's based in Corpus Christi. "People at the low level are misinformed about what they are getting involved in," he says. "When they do get caught, they are kind of shocked. They realize, this isn't just a traffic ticket it's a federal crime." Defense lawyers report that prosecutors now routinely bring cases against small-time smugglers. Prosecutions under Section 1324 of the US code, "Bringing in and harboring certain aliens," climbed steadily during the Trump administration, with the exception of a pandemic-related lull in 2020, and have continued to rise under President Joe Biden, reaching a recorded high of almost 6,000 cases in fiscal 2021, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The Texas Penal Code also has a charge for the "smuggling of persons," enabling state prosecutors to pick up smaller cases the federal government opts not to pursue.
Brian Moskowitz, a former US Department of Homeland Security special agent who led investigations into human smuggling rings, says that during his time in government, he advocated prosecuting even low-level offenders, stressing deterrence. But he notes that as long as cycles of violence and poverty push migrants to leave Central America and as long as South Texas residents face such limited economic opportunities, there will always be another Wilson. "Everyone agrees," Moskowitz says. "You're not going to arrest your way out of this."
When Wilson discovered the true purpose of his trip, he called the brothers, feeling that they'd set him up. "We just figured the less you knew, the better you were," he recalls them explaining calmly.
When he went to meet them, he was still fuming. Then the brothers handed him a stack of bills totaling at least $2,500, even more than promised, and his anger disappeared. For seven hours' work, he made twice what he once earned in a month at Denny's.
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