NOGALES, SONORA, Mex. – Illegal immigration from other countries besides Mexico is a growing trend along the Southwest border even as apprehensions of illegal immigrants overall continues to decline.
A recent Arizona case surprised border law enforcement.
The older man is nervous and won't give his name. He fears for his life, he says, but is willing to talk. Up until early June, he worked as a guard outside a smuggling stash house in a Nogales, Sonora, neighborhood.
The smugglers paid this man to keep an eye on things along the city block. He wasn’t allowed inside the high white walls of the safe house. He didn’t know who was being kept hidden inside.
Then Mexican federal agents came. They brought a bus and took those inside. The guard walked away.
Mexican officials said they arrested 58 people. They were mostly Central Americans from Guatemala but also 11 people from India.
But the story didn’t end there.
Across the border in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, the smuggling ring had some success.
Enough to surprise Sheriff Tony Estrada who described the situation from his office.
"We had something that obviously we had not experienced before. Between June 9 and 11, we had a total of 24 people from India. In the next following days, there were 11 more," Estrada said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection held the 35 Indians in the county jail here. But it has given very few details about when the arrests happened or how they happened.
"In my 45 years here and in my 20 years as sheriff, I’ve never seen something like this before. These numbers were striking in a lot of ways," Estrada said.
A quick look at the numbers shows a pervasive pattern in the arrests of what the Border Patrol calls "Other Than Mexicans" or "Exotics."
Nationwide, 91,000 people from countries besides Mexico were arrested at the border last year. Those nearly tripled since 2001. That’s even as arrests overall declined along the border.
Last year, 12 people from Afghanistan were arrested, eight from Iran, eight more from France, seven from Ireland. In fact, the population of immigrants spans the globe, including three from Zimbabwe.
While it's not known why the immigrants from India tried to come to this country, attorney John Messing believes they may have come to seek asylum for religious persecution. He describes the enduring process of seeking asylum.
"They’re put into a proceeding for a credible fear determination. That’s what it’s called," Messing said.
But here’s the catch: To start that process, they had to be captured on U.S. soil first.
"Someone has briefed them on how the U.S. system works before they left their country or origin, before they reached the U.S.," Messing said.
That is to say, someone knew that all they had to do was get those people across the border into Arizona. And if Mexico caught the ringleaders in Nogales, Sonora, that day in June, the government isn’t saying.