• U.S.

People Smuggling Is A Good Business

4 minute read
Edward Barnes/St. Regis Mohawk Reservation

Between the worn-out trailers and the HUD homes on the St. Regis Mohawk reservation sits an incongruous stretch of newly built mansions. From his patrol car, Wesley Benedict, the tribal police chief, points out a red brick palazzo and a white gabled mansion. “Most of those are built with smuggling money,” he says. Around the world, word has spread that if you want to come to the U.S., the easiest point of entry is this barren reservation that cuts across both sides of the New York-Canada border.

A year ago, 35 people, including a tribal chief, were indicted for their part in an international ring that smuggled Chinese into the U.S. The Justice Department says it brought in more than $160 million–100 to 150 aliens a month at $47,000 each, with the Mohawks getting a cut. But St. Regis is still the route of choice for perhaps 20,000 illegals each year from the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

“Aliens aren’t our job,” says Chief Benedict wearily. Yet much of his time is spent picking up lost strangers on the reservation and turning them over to the border patrol. He points out a dozen regular drop-off points, like old marinas and abandoned houses. For several days last week, he was on the alert for Hussein Fayid, an accused Lebanese murderer and reputed Hizballah money mover. Authorities traced Fayid through Toronto. Just outside the Mohawk reservation, he slipped away.

“The easiest way to America? That’s simple,” says Dick Ashlaw, who runs the U.S. border patrol in the region. “Go to the McDonald’s in Cornwall, Canada, take a seat and look lost. It takes about 10 minutes. Someone will tap you on the shoulder. And from there it’s into the reservation and a three-minute boat ride to the United States.” The going price is $500. Those who don’t arrive with the aid of smugglers simply walk off the reservation and catch a Trailways bus. The local bus stop is the Big M Market in Massena, N.Y. Says the manager: “They come in every other day.” But an understaffed border patrol can only do spot checks there.

The Mohawk reservation appeals to smugglers because its status as a tribal reserve makes it a no-go area for law enforcement officials. Even the military has declared it a “red zone” and has refused to fly over it since a medical helicopter was shot down on a nearby reservation years ago. At the edge of the 16,000-acre reservation, a sign boldly warns the FBI, state police and IRS to keep out. “It is a jurisdictional and geographic nightmare,” says Ashlaw, who only enters the reservation escorted by the tribal police. This year the border patrol has made 1,800 alien arrests.

According to tribal police and federal authorities, the smuggling took off several years ago when Canada lowered its cigarette tax. Until then much of the reservation’s cash came from buying cheap cigarettes in the States and selling them illegally in Canada. “You could make 600% on a case of cigarettes,” says Mohawk Charlie Little Tree. “When that ended, people became the easiest commodity.” Little Tree is now facing charges for smuggling aliens; his son is already serving time for the same offense.

Little Tree estimates that at least 1,000 of the 8,000 Mohawks currently living on the reserve are involved in the trade. The reservation has an unemployment rate of almost 40%. “There are some big guys in it, maybe 100, but mostly it is kids or anyone else who needs money to fix a car or go on a date,” says Little Tree. “They can pick up $500 for a few minutes’ work.”

Another worry, says police chief Benedict, is that the trade is getting rougher. He points to an abandoned red-trimmed house sitting on the Canadian side of the border. “Last year smugglers locked a family with a small baby in there and left them for several days. The baby nearly died.”

Yet government officials say they expect it to get worse before it gets better. The political unrest in Pakistan and an unfounded rumor, started by smugglers, that there will soon be an immigration amnesty for illegals already in the U.S. are likely to cause another surge in crossings. But many Mohawks don’t take the problem all that seriously. “After all,” says Little Tree, “to us, everyone is an alien.”

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