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Experts: Human trafficking is hidden tragedy of broken immigration system

MATAMOROS, Mexico (KWTX/Gray News) – Hundreds of thousands of migrants a year, many of them children, endure long and treacherous journeys with the help of smugglers.

Many are hoping to find a better life in the United States, but even once they make it across the border, many may find themselves in a world they could not have possibly imagined.

The images out of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas have become all too familiar; migrants rounded up by U.S. Border Patrol agents after sneaking across the border with Mexico.

The migrants often outnumber the agents.

Over the past two years, they have overwhelmed the immigration system.

But hidden behind the headlines and the politics is a darker world where victims are bought and sold into labor, including the sex trade.

While some of the migrants are able to enter the U.S., others are stranded near the international bridge in the border city of Matamoros, Mexico, where they pass the time under the scorching summer sun, hoping for a chance to cross over.

“I’m here because I was deported. I made it to the US with the help of a coyote. It was dangerous,” said Darwin, a 10-year-old boy seeking asylum in the U.S.

Darwin and his mother were sent back to Mexico after arriving in the U.S.

The crowd of migrants in Matamoros rushes in as Anamichelle Castellano, an American, hands out tents for shelter.

Children wander freely in the background.

Parents said they are concerned about their situation in Mexico.

“Mexico is not a safe place. We never leave this zone,” said Martin, a father who added that migrants tend to stay together for safety.

The most dangerous part of the journey may be ahead in the U.S.

“One of the first things we teach at our shelter is when they take this huge sigh of relief, we tell them there is danger in the U.S. as well,” said Castellano, who works with The Socorro Foundation.

By some estimates, between 20,000 and 50,000 migrants, mostly women and children, are trafficked in the U.S. every year.

“They are putting their lives in the hands of these callous smugglers and criminal organizations, who knows what happens to them in their final destinations,” said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Dustin Araujo.

Whether they come to the U.S. through a legal port of entry or not, experts agree migrants are vulnerable.

Most arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, often owing thousands of dollars to the smugglers who brought them to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I was being extorted and it was difficult to work and save money,” according to Oscar, a migrant from Honduras who said he fled his country because of extortionists.

The anti-human trafficking group UnBound, along with law enforcement officers from the Waco area, sometimes travels hundreds of miles to Anamichelle’s new shelter in Hidalgo to drop off supplies.

Most importantly, they help those who come in contact with migrants spot signs of exploitation.

“They’re basically being used to be put with individuals to make it look like a family. Law enforcement is aware of that and have really cracked down on a lot of safety issues to be able to identify and help in those situations,” said UnBound National Director Susan Peters.

President Donald Trump recently signed several pieces of anti-trafficking legislation, but McLennan County Sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit Det. Joe Scaramucci, who has helped crack hundreds of these cases in Texas, said the solution is also on the home front.

“At the end of the day, this is ultimately a human problem, it’s not an immigration problem,” he said.

“It’s not a domestic problem. It’s human beings, trying to help each other and do better by each other is ultimately what’s going to end it,” Scaramucci said.

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