The big, ignored business of extorting undocumented migrants

I've been a long-time New Yorker subscriber but it's been a long time since I've sat down with the print edition to read a story. Today, I sat still long enough to finish Sarah Stillman's stunningly well-reported piece, Where are the Children? in the April 27, 2015 edition.

The article is brimming with examples of the dire impact of unintended consequences, the most macro of which is how U.S. efforts to secure the border have led to a new economy for those who prey on the smuggling of migrants:

“It’s exactly like Prohibition—exactly like bootlegging,” Terry Goddard told me recently. As the mayor of Phoenix during the nineteen-eighties and Arizona’s attorney general from 2003 to 2011, Goddard had presided over the explosion in border-security measures, aggressively seeking to eliminate stash houses where migrants were held for ransom. But he discovered that the source of the problem went much deeper than individual smugglers. Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant laws made undocumented victims afraid to coöperate with law enforcement on prosecutions, and, as long as the country continued to rely on immigrant labor while giving workers few avenues for legal entry, extortionists would have access to a consistent supply of prey. “You can push down the practice in Arizona,” he said, of stash-house extortions, “and it will pop up elsewhere.” In recent years, “elsewhere” has come to mean the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas—the Godoy boys’ planned point of entry into the country.

Even as lengthy as Stillman's article is, there are passages that themselves could be feature-length articles:

A year and a half before Brayan and Robinson Godoy travelled north, I arrived at Mexico’s border with Guatemala, in the state of Tabasco, to join a group of nearly forty Central American women on a bus trip to search for their children, spouses, and relatives, many of whom had vanished en route to the U.S. During the next three weeks, we travelled three thousand miles along Mexico’s migrant trail, tracing the same path north to Texas that awaited the Godoys, before we looped back south, through the country’s interior kidnapping hubs. At morgues, hospitals, shelters, and mass graves, we looked for clues to the whereabouts of the missing.

Today, NPR published an interview with Stillman, and a commenter eloquently summed up the inverse relationship between the importance of Stillman's work and the public interest:

Judging by the dearth of comments here, one would conclude that a) this is not a very important issue for most NPR readers/listeners, and b) those who have paid attention, have little or no compassion for the human condition, and a gross misunderstanding about undocumented aliens.

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