Inside look: Why immigrants willingly risk their lives to come to America

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Last year there were 2,700 criminal smuggling arrests and 1500 convictions in the United States.

It is a sweeping problem that isn't getting better.

Houston is a hub for human smuggling. A place with a large population and several interstates, it is where two weeks ago we saw a dozen illegal immigrants rescued from an unventilated box truck in southwest Houston.

Some of the survivors of the fatal San Antonio smuggling operation said they were headed to Houston as well.

"People want to come here," immigration attorney Raed Gonzalez said. "We have an immigration system that doesn't work and everybody knows that."

These are the cases that we know about. There are countless more in which the smugglers and illegal immigrants are never caught.

Gonzalez said immigration reform would help. People risk their lives to come here because they believe they have no other choice.

"A lot of people are running away and they come to the United States to get some type of refuge," Gonzalez said. "And some people are willing to risk their lives in order to do that because they are going to be killed in their home country anyways. So why not try? "

You'll hear a lot of talk about both smuggling and trafficking. There is a difference.

"Human trafficking is a crime of exploitation," said Houston police Sgt. John Wall. "Smuggling is a crime of transportation."

In a smuggling case, the illegal immigrants go voluntarily. In trafficking they don't. Houston is known for both.

"Houston is a hub city for the United States," Harris County Assistant District Attorney Tom Berg said. "It's a major problem here."

Berg is working the case from two weeks ago in which a dozen illegal immigrants were pulled from a sweltering box truck by a quick thinking police officer.

"Much of what we get comes right across the Mexican border, although the people may have their origin much further south, they're gathered together at the border," Berg said. "They're brought here because of the highway routes which become the smuggling routes here in Texas. "

In the San Antonio case-survivors say the Zeta drug cartel was involved in their transport.

Federal law enforcement authorities not involved in the San Antonio case confirm to Eyewitness News that smugglers can include street level gangs up to international criminal organizations like the Zetas.

"Individuals are dealing with the mafia basically. And they think, 'Okay we're going to charge you $3,000 to bring your son safely to the United States.' What they don't know is what can happen on the way and once they bring them to the border they say, 'Okay, we need another $5,000 if you want to see them alive. "

Wall said any time an individual entrusts their life with a criminal or criminal enterprise, they're taking a huge risk.

It's a risk so many are willing to take despite the potentially deadly consequences.

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