A recent bust of a scheme to fly Chinese illegal immigrants into the region is the latest in what a top immigration agent described as an upswing in attempts to smuggle Chinese citizens into Houston.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are deporting five Chinese citizens after the interception of a private plane that flew this month to Wharton from the Texas-Mexico border loaded with the immigrants.
"We're seeing an increase in the smuggling of Chinese nationals into and through Houston in the past six months," said Robert Rutt, who heads ICE criminal investigations in the Houston area.
Rutt noted that in September, U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted 50 illegal immigrants packed inside an 18-wheeler at a South Texas highway checkpoint north of Harlingen, including 23 Chinese citizens headed to Houston.
In October, ICE agents, Border Patrol and state troopers rounded up 54 illegal immigrants in the Mission area, including 40 from China.
"We're also seeing other loads of Chinese nationals, in ones and twos, being smuggled into and through Houston," Rutt said.
"This is a definite increase in the past six months. The Rio Grande Valley Sector accounts for almost 50 percent of illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico who are interdicted."
Rutt said it's not clear what's driving the increase in Chinese immigration but notes historically it has "ebbed and flowed."
By air and land
Human smuggling organizations have charged Chinese and other Asians immigrants fees of up to $25,000 to be smuggled into the U.S., usually by flying them to Latin America and then transporting them overland to the Texas-Mexico border.
The local increase mirrors a nationwide jump in the unauthorized Chinese population this decade, according to a Department of Homeland Security analysis released in September of the nation's 11.8 million undocumented residents.
Illegal immigrants from China increased 49 percent from 2000 to 2007, and DHS now estimates there are 290,000 residing in the U.S.
On the recent bust, Rutt said the border flight was flagged Dec. 11 by personnel at Air and Marine Operations Center, operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Riverside, Calif., after it took off from an airfield in the bordertown of McAllen.
The plane landed in Wharton, and the passengers got off the plane and were loaded into a waiting vehicle.
After a chase by local law enforcement officers, the vehicle was stopped and the passengers detained, but the driver managed to escape after fleeing into a wooded area.
Meanwhile, the private plane flew to an airport in Sugar Land, where the two pilots were taken into custody.
Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Yolanda Choates said federal agents in Houston shadowed the plane until it landed and took the pilots into custody at ICE's request.
The two pilots of the leased private plane were not charged, but the twin-engined Cessna 421 has been seized by the government, Rutt confirmed.
Tony Crowder, the director of the Air and Marine Operation Center in California, said the center uses a combination of radar and databases from the FAA and other agencies to identify suspicious planes and ships. The center can dispatch 300 aircraft and 200 boats stationed nationwide to intercept and investigate any questionable traffic.
"Every day, we're looking for compliant, and noncompliant, aviators who need further investigation," Crowder said.
"In this case, this was an aircraft that was compliant, was blending in with the normal air traffic, but yet there were just some things about it that caused us to have reasonable suspicion the aircraft needed a second look."
Crowder declined to say what piqued the government's interest in the McAllen flight, but said "obviously, we pay a lot of attention to the border region."
I bet that they're covered in Lead Paint.
i was more interested when I thought the title said "Smuggling of Cheese...".
The chinese food here sucks.
They certainly won't stand out.