KINNEY COUNTY, Texas—The number of human smugglers arrested by deputies in Kinney County, Texas, has more than quadrupled in the past two years, and the sheriff wants the penalties to increase.
Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said his deputies arrested 741 smugglers transporting illegal immigrants from the border in 2022, up from 169 in 2020. In addition, deputies were involved in 139 vehicle pursuits, up from 61 in 2020; high-speed pursuits also have doubled, leading to multiple deaths.
Coe said his deputies are arresting people who are flying in from Ohio or Washington, renting a car at the airport, and then picking up illegal immigrants at the U.S.–Mexico border to transport them to San Antonio. Smugglers from Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Florida also are prevalent in the area, he said.
The sheriff said he's also seeing repeat offenders—those who have been charged with human smuggling but for whom no jail space is available (usually females and juveniles), so the charges are filed at large, leaving the suspect to continue to smuggle.
Coe plans to attend Sheriffs' Day in Texas's capital on Feb. 22 to get lawmakers on board with stiffer smuggling penalties. He says he wants smugglers to get a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years per illegal immigrant being smuggled in the vehicle.
"So if you've got one, you're looking at five years; if you've got 10, you're looking at 50 [years]," Coe told The Epoch Times.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also is calling for a five-year minimum sentence.
"I’m getting damn tired of Texas residents smuggling people into our country illegally."
Bernice Garza was arrested along with alleged coconspirators Magali Rosa and Juan Antonio Charles. The trio is accused of attempting to smuggle illegal immigrants to Houston.
Currently, smuggling of humans is a third-degree felony offense, punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000 per person being smuggled.
The new law raises the degree of a felony if a pecuniary gain is proven, if a smuggled person is a minor, or if the smuggler has a firearm.
Pecuniary gain is the money or benefit a driver is paid to smuggle illegal aliens from one place to another. To prove it requires a confession on most occasions, and often, a defendant will simply say they were giving the passengers a lift for free.
In reality, cartels recruit smugglers through social media websites and messaging apps promising thousands of dollars for transporting illegal aliens. The drivers tend to be a mix of U.S. citizens and illegal aliens.
Coe wants lawmakers to go further than just a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.
"If anybody in that smuggling load is MS-13, or some type of known street gang member, it ups the penalty. If they're convicted felons, it ups the penalty. Once you're convicted, I think you ought to lose your right to your driver's license, public housing, food stamps, free medical, or whatever benefits you have," he said.
"Dangle that over their heads. If they're convicted, they lose it all."
Coe also wants lawmakers to consider other penalties such as increased insurance rates and involvement of child protective services for those who have children with them.
"We need to look at other things other than just immigration. That's a few things I do have on the list when and if I get to go to Austin," he said.
"I'm trying to find out: Who do I need to go to? Who do I need to sit in their office and wait till they come out and push some of this stuff forward? But the question is, do they really care?"
Aside from the human smuggling in vehicles, thousands of illegal immigrants try to evade Border Patrol by walking on the ranches around the inland border highway checkpoints.
During the last nine months of 2022, at least 21,000 suspected illegal aliens were viewed on cameras set up by Kinney County, moving on foot either inside the county or on trails and passages that lead into the county.
"To our knowledge, none have been apprehended, and their whereabouts today are unknown," the sheriff's office said.
The population of Kinney County is about 3,100.
From talking to local ranchers and business owners, Coe says he's learned that the number of hunters coming to the area this season has decreased. Hunting is a major portion of Kinney County's economy.
He said part of it is the economy, but the main issue is illegal immigration.
"They just didn't trust coming out here with everything that's going on. They'd show up, they go to their cabin, it's been ransacked, stuff is missing. They patch it all together, come back three weeks later, same thing," he said.
"Same thing with ranchers, with illegal immigrants cutting fences and smugglers driving through them. If we can’t protect the ranchers, if we can't protect the leaseholders, we have nothing."