New human trafficking routes to US begin with charter flights as migrants pay hefty $72,000 'fee' | World News

And some passengers claiming to be tourists brought only a backpack for trips lasting several weeks. U.S. authorities later discovered that almost all of the charter passengers disembarking in San Salvador had crossed the U.S. border, the official said.

The record number of migrant apprehensions at the U.S. southwest border, which topped 2 million last fiscal year.

When a Legend Airlines Airbus A340 landed at San Salvador airport on July 15 after an 18-hour flight from the United Arab Emirates, its crew quickly realized something was wrong.

Salvadoran authorities refused to connect the jet bridge to allow the approximately 300 passengers, all Indian nationals, to disembark, according to three former flight crew members who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Several passengers told cabin crew they planned to continue their journey to Mexico and illegally cross the border into the United States, a crew member said. Others said they were vacationing in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, another crew member said.

Salvadoran authorities were already on alert when the plane landed. Several months earlier, U.S. and Salvadoran authorities had noticed an unusual frequency of charter planes landing in El Salvador carrying primarily Indian nationals.

The planes were arriving full and leaving empty, a U.S. official said.

And some passengers claiming to be tourists brought only a backpack for trips lasting several weeks. U.S. authorities later discovered that almost all of the charter passengers disembarking in San Salvador had crossed the U.S. border, the official said.

Such charter flights represent a new phase of illegal immigration to the United States, five U.S. officials said in interviews with Reuters. Increasingly, they said, migrants from outside Latin America are paying high fees to smuggling networks for travel packages that can include plane tickets – on charter airlines and commercial – to get to Central America, then bus rides and hotel stays en route to the United States and Mexico. border.

“Some charter companies are charging extortion prices to prey on and profit from vulnerable migrants and facilitate irregular migration to the United States,” Eric Jacobstein, deputy assistant secretary at the Office of the United States, told Reuters. Western Hemisphere of the Department of State.

Jacobstein declined to comment on Legend or identify specific companies.

Liliana Bakayoko, a Paris-based lawyer who has represented Legend since December, said the Romanian charter airline had not been accused of wrongdoing by any authority. She added that she was unaware of the July flight and said the airline was essentially like a “taxi driver.”

The record number of migrant apprehensions at the U.S. southwest border, which topped 2 million last fiscal year, has emerged as a major vulnerability for Democratic President Joe Biden in the presidential election in November, with opinion polls showing more Americans trust former Republican President Donald Trump. radical approach to immigration.

On June 4, Biden – trailing in polls in key battleground states – announced executive actions aimed at denying access to asylum and quickly expelling migrants or sending them back to Mexico if the crossing points exceed a certain threshold. It is unclear how this policy will work in practice for migrants from distant countries, who account for a growing share of illegal immigration.

About 9% of irregular U.S. border crossings in fiscal 2023 involved migrants from countries outside Latin America, or about 188,000 people, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ten years ago, people from countries outside the Americas represented barely 1% of irregular arrivals.

The Biden administration attributes historic levels of migration to global economic and political instability. Trump blamed the height of border crossings on Biden's policies.

Indian nationals made up the largest group from outside the Americas encountered at the border last year, comprising around 42,000 arrivals. Migrants from 15 West African countries accounted for another 39,700 people, most from Senegal and Mauritania.

The Biden administration has worked with some regional governments as well as travel agencies to stem the flow of migrants.

In March, he began revoking U.S. visas for owners and managers of charter airlines and other companies suspected of facilitating smuggling. The State Department's Jacobstein declined to name the individuals or companies affected or how many of them faced restrictions. Reuters was unable to independently establish which companies had been targeted.

In May, the administration warned commercial airlines to be on the lookout for passengers who may intend to emigrate illegally to the United States. Arrests at the border in April were down 48% compared to December, according to U.S. government data, which U.S. officials attribute in part to tougher rules. application by Mexico.

El Salvador's Vice President, Felix Ulloa, said in an interview that his government collaborates “permanently, constantly and effectively” with the United States to combat irregular migration. The introduction last October of visa requirements and $1,000 transit fees for citizens of India and many African countries had “significantly reduced” the number of migrants transiting through San Salvador, he said.

But as some illegal migration routes narrow, others open up.

Reuters and Columbia Journalism Investigations, the university's postgraduate reporting program, have traced two new intercontinental migrant smuggling routes. This article's reporting draws on previously unpublished aerial data, border figures obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and nearly 100 interviews with government officials, police, airlines, smugglers, travel agents and migrants in nine countries.

One route begins in West Africa, with migrants paying up to $10,000 for multi-stop commercial flights to Nicaragua, before continuing overland to the United States.

The second, serving Indian migrants, offers charter flights to Central America and land transfers to the US border for between 6 million ($72,000) and 8 million rupees ($96,000) per person – in many cases, full payment is due after arrival in the United States. , according to Indian court documents and KT Kamariya, a deputy superintendent of police in the western Indian state of Gujarat who investigates illegal immigration.

New routes through Central America avoid visa requirements for migrants arriving directly in Mexico. They also avoid the dangerous trek north through the jungle region between Colombia and Panama, known as the Darien Gap, that migrants face after arriving in some regime-controlled South American countries. lax visa requirements.

Blas Nuñez-Neto, assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, designated Nicaragua as a new point of entry for many migrants. President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla and adversary of the United States during the Cold War, was denounced by Washington for his authoritarianism following the repression of internal protests and opposition groups.

“I think Nicaragua has really, unfortunately, used these flows as a weapon,” Nuñez-Neto said in an interview. “It’s difficult when you have a government in the region that has essentially opened its doors and allows anyone from anywhere in the world to fly directly in exchange for a cash payment.”

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, who manages government communications, did not respond to requests for comment.

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