Daylight breaks as Steve McDonald enters the northbound Interstate 75 rest area in Sumter County. ¶ A parked minivan with tinted windows catches his eye, so McDonald, agent in charge of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Tampa station, decides to run the Arizona license plate. He knows human smugglers sometimes nap here while driving illegal immigrants from Mexican border communities to the Tampa Bay area and points south. ¶ The address on the van's registration gets a hit, showing previous contact with immigration officials. McDonald approaches the driver, who is asleep inside. He isn't alone.
Three men lay sideways in the van, wedged tightly into the spot where the middle seat belongs. A startled woman in the front tries to wake two other men sleeping in the back, where urine-filled water jugs and Gatorade bottles roll around on the floor. Smugglers rarely let their cargo outside, for fear they will run rather than pay.
"Smuggling illegal aliens is a prolific business,'' says McDonald, a 25-year Border Patrol veteran.
And it has never received more attention.
Like every federal law enforcement agency, the Border Patrol changed its focus after Sept. 11, 2001. Before the attacks, McDonald and his colleagues concentrated more on assisting other agencies that came into contact with immigrants, legal or otherwise. Now the emphasis is on fighting terrorism, which McDonald says has greatly increased efforts to combat human smuggling.
"This could be exploited by terrorists very easily,'' he says.
That's why Tampa agents who patrol a 12-county region from Citrus to Sarasota have made cases against 80 human smugglers in recent years, he says.
They try to keep up with the shifting patterns of smugglers, but McDonald knows his agents can only catch them if they see them.
"It's kind of the roll of the dice when you come out here," he says.
Florida is home to more illegal immigrants than all but two states, which puts it on the front lines of human smuggling.
But the chase actually begins in Mexican border states like Arizona and Texas, site of most of the "stash houses" where illegal immigrants arrange transportation to their final destination. On average, authorities say, smugglers charge $2,000 per passenger.
Local patrol agents pay special attention to large vehicles with border state tags, as well as those from Tennessee, Oklahoma and Alabama, states typically along a Florida-bound smuggler's route.
Immigration attorneys have challenged some Border Patrol stops, arguing that agents are abusing their considerable powers. While local authorities must have probable cause to stop and search a vehicle, Border Patrol agents can pull people over on "reasonable suspicion'' — a legal standard some immigration attorneys consider far too loose.
"It just opens it up to too many unwarranted stops that really don't have much merit," said Arturo Rios Jr., a St. Petersburg-based immigration attorney. "I think ... we might be getting to a point where there's a witch hunt."
Agents say they evaluate the totality of each circumstance, taking into account the size and appearance of the vehicle, the state on the license plate and the number and behavior of occupants in the vehicle before initiating a stop.
At 51, McDonald has spent half his life patrolling U.S. borders. He says experience is key in smuggling investigations.
If an agent spots a vehicle considered suspicious, he follows it for at least 10 miles. Meanwhile, the agent runs the license plate, and watches to see if passengers inside the vehicle are trying to hide.
"Experience is a huge part of it," McDonald said. "Do you have enough to stop the vehicle or don't you? We have to constantly evaluate that. You have to almost go over the case in your mind. You can't say one event is exactly like the next one."
During a recent patrol, McDonald sat just north of Pasco County between the guardrails along I-75. He fixed the spotlight of his cruiser so he could watch for license plates of interest whizzing by.
"Once you've seen them, they jump out at you," he said.
On this day, however, like many others, there are few suspects and no arrests.
• • •
Despite the beefed-up patrols, Rios, the immigration attorney, says human smuggling remains a major problem.
"Illegal entries are worse than ever," he said. "What has changed is that there's more enforcement."
And there soon could be even more. President Bush wants the agency doubled to 20,000 agents by the time he leaves office.
Besides captures from road stops, agents regularly board buses to check travelers' documents.
Simon Tsang, a Tampa attorney who has practiced immigration law for 20 years, doesn't agree with all the tactics.
"The idea of these stops on public transportation is something you would take out of Nazi Germany," Tsang said.
Once an alien is arrested, he has the right to an attorney and the right to present his case before a judge. "Aliens have more rights than they know," Rios said.
Border Patrol agents supply immigrants with a list of free legal services. And McDonald says he always treats suspects with compassion.
Illegal immigrants from Mexico or Canada can ask for voluntary departure, and a deportation won't go on their criminal record if this is their first time, eliminating one hurdle from legally returning someday. Others can ask for political asylum, which Tsang said is much more difficult to obtain. Rios said he always advises clients to ask for a hearing before a judge.
"The country still has a lot to offer. There are still jobs that Americans don't want to take," Tsang said. "There's also the fact that this country is a safe haven compared to a lot of countries in the Western Hemisphere."
"No matter how bad our economy might or might not be, it's still better than most," he said. "People are still coming to this country. I don't think that's ever going to end, no matter how strict we get. We are still a country of hope."
Times photographer John Pendygraft contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.