Ripe for Exploitation

Illegal immigrants have been flocking to the orchards of Chandler Heights for more than a decade. The immigration authorities continue to ignore the crime and suffering there.

The man who calls himself "Pedro" inches his white Ford van off Power Road into a littered dirt clearing between two orange groves. From his van, Pedro surveys four men and four boys soaking their feet in water rushing through a concrete-lined irrigation ditch. The group of Guatemalans is dirty, hungry and fatigued. Several have weeping sores on their feet. They've just hiked six days through the desert, paying $100 apiece to a mula who led them from El Altar in Sonora, Mexico, to Chandler Heights, about 50 miles east of Phoenix.

One of the men scoops canned Boston baked beans into his mouth with a leaf. He passes the baked beans to a 14year-old named Adolfo, who wears only a blue towel wrapped around his waist. The man sings a sexually explicit song to Adolfo in Spanish. Everyone laughs.

Pedro, dressed in a rumpled white shirt, jeans and dirty, peacock-blue high tops, gets out of his van. He slides open the door on the passenger side. Seven men step out of Pedro's vehicle. Pedro's wife and 3-year-old daughter follow.

During an interview, Pedro says he's a "chauffeur," but most would call him a "coyote," an immigrant smuggler.

Pedro is one of hundreds of coyotes doing business in Chandler Heights. The citrus groves are known to campesinos throughout Central America and Mexico--and to U.S. immigration and law enforcement officials, church workers and citrus growers--as a center for farmworkers interested in catching rides to the East Coast.

It's no secret to folks in Chandler Heights, an unincorporated citrus-farming area in eastern Maricopa County, that thousands of immigrants, mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans, arrive at the groves every year. Last year, church workers who volunteer in the groves estimated that from 20 to 100 immigrants arrived at the orange groves every week.

But things are changing in the Chandler Heights coyote business. Traditional coyotes like Pedro, who say they have legitimate immigration documents, who own their vans and who often travel with wife and kids, are being replaced by well-organized smuggling rings that transport people in UHaul and Ryder trucks.

These new coyotes are more violent than their predecessors. Well-armed, they have been known to rob, beat or rape their passengers.

"They give a bad name to chauffeuring," says Pedro, watching his wife wash their child's hair with Pert shampoo in the irrigation ditch. She dries the little girl with a towel, dresses her in clean clothes. Then she washes her own hair. When she's finished, Pedro's wife hands the bottle of Pert to the seven men who've gotten out of the van. They strip to their shorts and step into the ditch.

Pedro's wife sweeps out the van with a whiskbroom, washes the windows, dusts off the Florida license plate. Before she rests, she hurls a large plastic bag of trash from the van into the orange trees.

Pedro, in the meantime, looks for more customers, or raza (Latino people). He doesn't have a full load of passengers yet, so he walks over to the eight Guatemalans and asks them where they're headed. A Mexican man named Francisco, the mula who guided the Guatemalans through the desert from Sonora to Chandler Heights, tells Pedro the crew is bound for North Carolina.

Too bad, Pedro says. He's headed for Valdosta, Georgia. He'll leave tonight if he can fill his van.

He's got his vehicle's suspension rigged so it rides high when empty. Fifteen people can hide in the back and the van won't even sag. La Migra--the immigration authorities--wouldn't have a clue there was anyone inside the fully loaded van except for Pedro and his wife and child.

Two more vans arrive--a red-and-white club wagon and a rust-colored van with "Sussex Appliance Service, Georgetown" lettered on its side. Both vans have Florida plates.

The drivers are teenagers. One sports a Texaco baseball cap, a Hawaiian shirt open at the chest, Bermuda shorts, preppy Top-Siders. The other has an earring and a stylish haircut.

The young men appear to be apprentice coyotes--kids hired by real coyotes to help drive, to find raza, keep raza in line during the journey, force raza by whatever means to settle accounts at the end of the trip.

But the young men, who refuse to give their names, deny that they work for coyotes. This is their first trip east, they say. They won't say who owns the vans they drive. They seem eager to avoid more questions. They get back in their vans, drive away.

Pedro sits down on the bank of the irrigation ditch. It is littered with empty Pennzoil cans, filthy blankets, plastic grocery bags, soft-drink six-pack cartons, an old shoe, a pair of red jockey shorts, tamale husks.

If only people knew how hard his job really is, says Pedro. He makes ten runs a year between the East Coast and Chandler Heights. It's 56 hours one way, and the trip kills his lower back. He's 38 now, and the drive isn't getting any easier.

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