AUSTIN, Texas - Immigrants who survive being smuggled across the border seldom set out on a life they intended. Victim advocates said smuggling often transitions into extortion, kidnapping and rape.
In recent years we have seen police interrupt smuggling missions in Central Texas, in 2014 ten people were found in an SUV in Downtown Austin. That same year nine were found in the back of an 18 wheeler in Kyle.
While sneaking into the U.S. starts as a crime, the immigrants often turn into victims as the trip spirals into torture.
"Human smuggling is a business,” said Rachel Alvarez of Refugee Services of Texas. “They are just trying to make money off of people who are very, very vulnerable and very desperate to have a better life."
Alvarez said immigrants risk a number of fates including being turned over to a gang, trafficked for sex or labor and extortion.
"Many times if they survive the journey, they're put in stash houses and being held for ransom being threatened for their lives, their family's lives as well,” said Alvarez.
"A lot of the stories we hear have them tied up with their hands behind their back nude without clothes, they're hardly fed, being beaten until they get their money,” said Alvarez.
"People don't realize how much of it is going on,” said APD Sgt. Kevin Covington.
Covington said his officers in the human trafficking unit investigate 25 cases a month. To improve the odds of uncovering the crime, the unit trains officers across the department.
"We talk to every cadet class. We talk to every in service class, training classes. We talk to them about what to look for and I'll tell you that's why we have more cases,” said Covington.
Alvarez said since 2003, Refugee Services of Texas has assisted more than 400 victims.
Many fear coming forward, but she and Covington said they shouldn't.
"We don't deport you. That's the biggest misconception with police work,” said Covington.
In fact victims are protected by what's called a T-visa and given legal assistance.
Unfortunately it was too late for ten in San Antonio.
"It really confirms why we do what we do in helping people get out of these situations,” said Alvarez.
If you have any information on a possible stash house or trafficking operation Refugee Services of Texas urges you to call 1-888-373-7888.