Many politicians in Washington, D.C., embrace the myth that they can allow masses of illegal aliens to sneak in from Mexico without increasing the risk of another Sept. 11.
Last week, I debunked that myth with the story of Salim Boughader, the Tijuana restaurateur who specialized in running illegal aliens from the Middle East into San Diego. When one of Boughader's Lebanese clients, 21-year-old Youseff Balaghi, died at a San Diego-area hospital, Border Patrol officials suspected radiation sickness. They checked his remains for exposure.
Balaghi was clean. But Border Patrol agents in that area will now carry radiation detectors.
The clear implication: The government fears terrorists might sneak in from Mexico carrying a dirty bomb.
Well, that was only part of the story.
The Border Patrol knew for years one of Boughader's associates was involved in alien smuggling. But the government decided not to prosecute her for it.
This year, Patricia Serrano-Valdez pleaded guilty to attempting to "conceal, harbor and shield from detection" one of Boughader's clients named Youseff Hussein Hamdan. On June 19, she was sentenced to a 10-month prison term.
This was not the first time Serrano, an illegal alien from Mexico, had been caught alien smuggling. But it was the first time she was held accountable.
Senior Border Patrol Agent John R. Korkin told her story in an affidavit submitted Dec. 12, 2002, in federal court.
The Border Patrol caught Serrano smuggling aliens twice in the late 1990s. Both times the government declined to prosecute and "removed" her to Mexico. In a third incident, her pickup was recovered at the scene of an alien smuggling incident -- but the driver escaped.
Last year, before Serrano was indicted for working with Boughader, she was living at the same San Diego address she gave the Border Patrol in 1998 when she was first arrested for alien smuggling. She had a current California ID listing that residence.
Korkin's affidavit described this address as the "load house" to which Boughader's clients were smuggled.
Here, in the words of Korkin's affidavit, are three events that took place in the years before Serrano was finally prosecuted:
1) "On March 7, 1998, Serrano-Valdez was arrested by USBP (U.S. Border Patrol) Agents in San Clemente, California for Alien Smuggling. Serrano was discovered in the act of transporting four (4) undocumented aliens concealed in the car trunk of a vehicle she was driving when encountered. Prosecution was declined and Serrano was formally removed to Mexico."
2) "On July 13, 1999, Serrano-Valdez was again arrested by USBP Agents in San Clemente, California for Alien Smuggling. Serrano was discovered in the act of transporting three (3) undocumented aliens concealed in the car trunk of the vehicle she was driving at the time of arrest. Prosecution was declined and Serrano was again formally removed from the U.S. to Mexico."
3) "On January 25, 2000, a 1988 Chevrolet Pick-up truck owned by Serrano . . . was stopped by USBP Agents in Campo, California for alien smuggling violations. The driver and all of the occupants of the vehicle fled from the vehicle on foot. Five (5) persons determined to be undocumented aliens from Mexico were subsequently located and arrested in the vicinity of the vehicle. The driver and an unknown number of suspected aliens fled the scene and were not located."
In 1999, the government did not consider it a serious crime to pack three illegal aliens into the trunk of a car in Southern California in July. Had the government shown zero tolerance for such acts, perhaps 19 illegal aliens would not have died after being packed into a tractor-trailer in southern Texas in May 2003.
Did things change after Sept. 11? A little.
Last year, then-Assistant Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Joseph R. Greene described Operation Southern Focus, begun in January 2002. "Information available to the INS indicates terrorist organizations often use human smuggling operations to move around the globe," he told a House subcommittee. To counter this, he said, the administration had put in place "a multi-jurisdictional enforcement initiative aimed at targeting alien smuggling organizations specializing in the movement of U.S.-bound aliens from countries that are of interest to the national security of the United States."
Rather than stop illegal border crossings generally, the government is trying to pick out the potential Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking in among the Latin American jobseekers.
This won't work because elements of the same criminal subculture that smuggle jobseekers also smuggle "U.S.-bound aliens from countries that are of interest to the national security of the United States."
Ask Patricia Serrano.
Correction: Last week, I incorrectly transcribed two quotes from Korkin's affidavit. Korkin said an investigation "positively identified at least 80 Lebanese nationals that have been, or were intercepted in the process of being, smuggled into the U.S. . . ." My transcription dropped "intercepted." Korkin said the "organization employs several individuals and co-conspirators in various countries to include Lebanon." My transcription said "including Lebanon."