Highway in Texas
El Paso's extensive drain system, which spans over 300 miles, has been a popular conduit for years, but has recently seen dramatic spikes amid changing politics. Pixabay.com/RJA1988

Amid increased crackdowns in illegal immigration through the southern border from both Mexico and the U.S., smugglers are finding innovative ways to transport humans from one country to another, the latest? Through El Paso's storm drain system.

The city's extensive storm drain system, which spans over 300 miles, has been a popular conduit for human smugglers for years, but recently, it has seen a dramatic spike, Border Patrol Agent Efrain Mercado told KTSM. So much so, the Border Patrol is conducting "sweeps" to check for signs of footing.

"Sometimes when we go in there, they've been using it for a couple of weeks, maybe a few days," said Mercado.

Among the system's usage are migrants, including children as young as five years old, who are forced into the drains by smugglers, according to the Border Report. Such smugglers— who are usually members of transnational criminal organizations— charge migrants thousands of dollars with the promise of entry into the U.S.

"A lot of these migrants are scared. They don't know where they are going. They just push them in, give them their blessing sometimes, and they are on their own. So, sometimes they are even happy to see us," Mercado explained.

The practice has presented significant challenges for both migrants and Border Patrol's Confined Space Entry Team (CSET), including exposure to toxic gasses, venomous animals and flash flooding.

"They just throw them in there and tell them where to go. Sometimes they have a guide. Sometimes they don't. When we enter a tunnel, there must be at least two entrances to be safe. We encounter groups of up to 20-40 migrants, and it's just two of us down there," Mercado said.

But despite encountering patrol agents equipped with helmets, hip waders, air quality monitor systems, and more protective gear, the drain system is often migrants' path to salvation, KTSM explains.

"I've seen them go into 18-inch storm drains out of desperation, and then we have to get in there and back them out, calm them down," Mercado said.

"We do this because we see these migrants come into these tunnels, we see bad outcomes, and we try to do our best to help these people," he continues.

The reports come as both the U.S. and Mexico agreed last year to collaborate in cracking down illegal immigration through the southern border.

For instance, The White House is reportedly finalizing plans for a U.S.-Mexico border shutdown that would essentially close down asylum requests and automatically deny entrance to migrants once the number of people encountered by American border officials exceeds a new daily threshold, the Associated Press reported.

The number of illegal crossings at the southern border has declined for months, with experts crediting Mexico's stepped-up efforts at the initiative. Mexico is currently not allowing more than 4,000 illegal crossings a day to the U.S., down from more than 10,000 Border Patrol arrests on some days in December.

"As a result of this increased enforcement, southwest border encounters have not increased, bucking previous trends. We will remain vigilant to continually shifting migration patterns," Troy Miller, Customs and Border Protection's acting commissioner, told the Associated Press.

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