Drop houses dangerous for residents, illegal immigrants

HOUSTON - Human smuggling is a costly crime that can be dangerous for the illegal immigrants and the residents near the homes where they are stashed.

Josh Vega said several of his friends have gone through the dangerous process.

"Sometimes they kill you, sometimes they let you free," he said. "You never know. It's a really high gamble."

Once in the United States, illegal immigrants often end up in drop houses in residential neighborhoods. Neighbors normally can't tell from the outside what is going on inside.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents said Houston is one of the first stops over the border.

"Houston is uniquely situated to be a hub for human smuggling and trafficking because we are so close to the border," ICE spokesman Sean McElroy said.

ICE agents have busted two drop houses in Houston recently. Officials said unsuspecting neighbors could be caught in the middle of gunfire if one of the illegal immigrants who hasn't paid up tries to make a run for it.

The illegal immigrants are often held against their will.

"Sometimes they remove the aliens' clothes and the illegal aliens are guarded by one to three people," McElroy said.

In some cases, the leaders of the smuggling operation, known as "coyotes," lie to the women in the group and never allow them to have freedom again.

"They're told, for instance, a female coming in may be working as a waitress or dishwasher, but they actually get trafficked. Once they're here, they're basically forced into prostitution," McElroy said.

Being smuggled into the country isn't cheap. To get from Mexico to Houston costs about $3,000. It costs about $8,000 to be smuggled to Houston from Central America.

It costs tens of thousands to be smuggled into the United States from overseas.

"We've seen some transportation organizations that move Chinese nationals and Indian nationals who pay $60,000 to $70,000 per person," McElroy said.

Even with increased border protection and more agents on the ground, the act of smuggling humans to the United States and Houston does not show any signs of slowing down anytime soon.

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