The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘unbelievable vehicles’ used to smuggle immigrants are mostly factory-issue sedans

President Trump on Jan. 9, 2019, spoke about anti-human trafficking legislation, but added that human trafficking "cannot be stopped" without a border wall. (Video: The Washington Post)
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According to President Trump, every day on the border between the United States and Mexico is a small slice of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“[O]ne of the things that happens there is human traffickers — maybe that’s the worst of all — where you’ll have traffickers having three and four women with tape on their mouths and tied up, sitting in the back of a van or a car, and they’ll drive that van or the car not through a port of entry, where we have very talented people that look for every little morsel of drugs, or even people, or whatever they’re looking for,” Trump explained during a briefing last week.

“Not going to go there. They get off the road and they drive out into the desert, and they come on, they make a left turn. Usually it’s a left, not a right. . . . [T]hese coyotes and these human traffickers, they make a right turn before they get to the port of entry,” he continued. “They go as far as the wall is, or as far as the barricade is, and then they make a left: ‘Welcome to the United States.’ And what they do with usually the women — sometimes children — that they’re trafficking with, and in, you don’t want to know about.”

And these aren’t regular cars that are skidding through the desert, either.

“[T]hey have unbelievable vehicles,” he said Wednesday. “They make a lot of money. They have the best vehicles you can buy. They have stronger, bigger and faster vehicles than our police have and than ICE has, and the Border Patrol have.”

In other words, it’s this.

This is all particularly grim, this vision of women and children bound and ferried across the border in armored roadsters, bouncing across sand dunes as Border Patrol agents are left coughing on their dust.

But while there have certainly been incidents in which people have been illegally transported into the United States for nefarious purposes, it’s not clear how often that actually happens, just as it’s not clear how often those seeking entry into the country use souped-up vehicles that best those used by federal authorities.

One thing we do know, though, is what sorts of vehicles have been impounded by Customs and Border Protection. There are, as of this writing, nearly 570 vehicles which have been seized by CBP and for which the agency has issued notices or forfeiture. You can see all of them, down to their VINs, at the moderately dystopian site

The bulk of these vehicles were seized at the border after violations of two laws: 8 USC 1324, which addresses attempts to illegally harbor migrants, and 19 USC 1595, which deals with smuggling. Some were seized by CBP elsewhere in the country, like the 2009 Volkswagen Passat seized at the Philadelphia airport on drug-related charges.

So how Mad-Maxian are these vehicles? Well, not very. Among the vehicles seized by CBP are more than 200 makes and models, spanning a half-century of production, from a 1966 Chevrolet C20 pickup truck seized in El Paso (smuggling) to a 2019 tractor-trailer seized at a Border Patrol station near Laredo, Tex. The most popular model year? 2004.

That 2019 tractor-trailer was, by far, the most valuable one seized, with an estimated value of $143,000. In total, the government estimates that the vehicles it seized are worth about $2.8 million. (The least valuable, setting aside a Nissan Altima estimated as being worth a dollar, was a 2000 Toyota Solara seized at Otay Mesa in San Diego, which the government figures is worth 50 bucks.) The median value of the seized vehicles is $2,500.

It is perhaps the case that the 2019 International Tractor-Trailer includes a rocket engine and bulletproof armor, allowing it to outrun the Ford Explorers that make up much of the Border Patrol’s fleet. (Eleven of the seized vehicles are themselves Ford Explorers.) That is not likely. In fact, of the vehicles seized, the majority are just plain old sedans.

As is the case with the seized vehicles overall, about half of the ones used specifically in cases where they were allegedly involved in harboring a migrant were sedans.

Perhaps the president would argue that this is the point: Those normal vehicles that are used to smuggle people or products into the United States are not the problem that his “unbelievable” smuggling machines are. Or perhaps the reality is more mundane. Perhaps the reality is that most of the attempts to enter the country illegally involve pedestrian, factory-made vehicles and, well, pedestrians.

As for his broader point, we have some good news. Nearly half of the existing miles of barriers on the border with Mexico are vehicle fences -- 300 miles -- meant to prevent any vehicle, Mad-Maxian or not, from driving into the United States. But then, as this 2012 photo shows, even higher walls aren’t necessarily an impediment to determined SUVs.