Federal agents said a total of 115 immigrants were being held at a suspected stash house in south Harris County by five smuggling suspects who are now in custody.
Special agent Brian Moskowitz with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told members of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, meeting today in Houston, that the suspects will be charged with “a variety of federal offenses, including hostage taking, unlawful possession of a firearm and conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens.”
Houston police made the discovery Wednesday morning in the 14700 block of Almeda School Road. Police said they had been conducting surveillance at the home after they received a report of a kidnapping Tuesday night.
Police said they were contacted by the family of a 24-year-old woman who reported that a human smuggler, or "coyote", had failed to show up at a meeting place where they were supposed to turn over the woman and her two children, ages five and seven.
According to Houston police, the investigation led to the home on Almeda School Road, where they pulled over a vehicle that was seen leaving Wednesday morning. Police said inside the suspects' vehicle they found two guns and evidence of a human smuggling operation.
Speaking to the same committee Thursday, Houston Police Chief McClelland said, “We believed someone's life was in jeopardy."
Once inside, the officers found a "sea of people," ranging in age from teens to adults.
"Bodies upon bodies, people stacked on top of each other. Dirty, filthy, conditions," said HPD spokesman John Cannon.
Police said a total of 94 men and 14 women were discovered, including one pregnant woman who was taken to a hospital for treatment.
"I can't believe it, can't believe because you never see that," said one neighbor.
The men were wearing only underwear and no shoes, so they couldn't escape, police said. The doors were locked from the outside.
An ICE official told Local 2 it was the largest operation it's encountered in five years. Authorities said 500 chickens were also found on the property.
Local 2 reporter Phil Archer toured the interior of the house Thursday, and found it dark as a cave, with the exception of a few, bare light bulbs. The windows were covered with sheets. The floor was a heap of blankets, garbage bags and trash. A few, dirty box spring mattresses were scattered in the two bedrooms and a built-on extension.
The immigrants were also detained and were taken to an ICE detention facility. Once there, they'll be fingerprinted and undergo medical screenings.
Each person will also have a one-on-one interview.
Some may be returned to their home countries, but decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. All of the them will have the opportunity to go before an immigration judge.
And all will have an opportunity to apply for a “U-Visa,” which allows illegals who are also victims of crime to live and work legally in the U.S. for four years.