New Details in the Houston Illegal Immigrant Stash House Raid

HOUSTON, TEXAS -- “Houston is the number one city in America with respect to human trafficking,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClellan during his testimony before a Congressional field briefing on that very topic held in Houston today. U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul hosted a briefing at Texas Southern University to learn more about the separate but related issues of human trafficking and human smuggling from law enforcement officials in the city that leads the nation with crimes of this nature.

The briefing was held just one day after a large bust by the Houston Police Department (HPD) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) where 115 illegal immigrants were found crammed into a filthy house, as reported by Breitbart Texas.

HSI Special Agent in Charge for HSI Houston, Brian Moskowitz, revealed new information about the Wednesday raid that was reported by Breitbart Texas’ Kristin Tate.  Moskowitz announced the filing of federal charges of hostage taking, illegal possession of a firearm and harboring illegal aliens against five individuals who were captured in the raid Wednesday.  He said that 115 foreign nationals, including women and young girls, were rescued in the operation.  HPD Chief McClellan said his officers had received a tip on a kidnapping victim being held at this address.  Due to exigent circumstances and fearing the victim’s life might be in immediate danger, HPD executed an immediate raid on the building where the victims were being held in what was described as squallier conditions.  Upon discovery of the other victims, HSI was notified and they joined in the investigation.

Moskowitz, in his testimony, said “human trafficking and human smuggling are two separate crimes under the law.” He described human trafficking as a crime against an individual who is often held against their will and forced into some kind of slavery or indentured servitude relationship with the perpetrator who is holding them.  Human smuggling, however, he described as a “crime against the United States” involving people being smuggled illegally into this country, often in a voluntary manner.  In reality, however, he explained these two crimes are often intertwined as many times the human smuggler, or “coyote,” will often hold their smuggling “passenger” hostage while demanding a higher payment that was originally agreed upon from the now human trafficking victim’s family.

Moskowitz discussed a recent trip to Mexico where he worked with Mexican authorities on improving communications between Mexico and the United States on these issues.

Despite Texas being the 2nd ranked state in the nation related to human trafficking and human smuggling, only one member of the Texas Legislature was present for today’s hearing.  Chairman McCaul recognized State Representative Allen Fletcher for his participation in today’s event.  Fletcher serves as vice-chairman of the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety and is the only retired peace officer currently serving in the legislature.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw spoke on the panel representing the state’s largest law enforcement organization.  McCraw applauded the work of HPD and HSI in regards to yesterday’s stash house operation.  McCraw said, “It is increasingly more difficult to tell the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling.” McCraw stated there was a 94% decrease in illegal entry in the past year.  However, he explained, “There was a 221% increase in the number of children entering Texas illegally.”

McCraw said Texas uses a two pronged approach.  Much of the work is done at what he described as an “enterprise level” where investigations are prosecuted against large trafficking organizations.  McCraw has also implemented a massive training program to the patrol officer level.  “Every patrol officer needs to be involved in human trafficking and human smuggling detection and enforcement.” 

DPS is conducting training of patrol officers at all levels to help them recognize human trafficking victims and rescue them during routine traffic stops.

Harris County Sheriff Garcia said human trafficking can hide in plain sight.  He cited the recent stash house raid as a prime example.  Garcia talked about his department’s “I Watch Harris County” phone app to help potential witnesses report situations where human smuggling or trafficking might be ongoing.  He said that when he became sheriff, there were six deputies who working on these issues in addition to their other duties.  “All of them were men,” Garcia explained. “Now we have seven deputies focused on this and seven of them are females.”

Garcia explained how young girls get trapped into the sex trade.  “Young girls do not grow up with a dream of becoming a prostitute,” Garcia said.  He claimed his deputies have rescued 230 victims of these crimes.  The Sheriff’s Office will continue to leverage technology in these investigations and will work to increase the knowledge and training of his deputies, Garcia explained.  He also said that passing a comprehensive or “sensible” immigration reform measure would help reduce these crimes.

Assistant District Attorney Ann Johnson said new laws in Texas and new procedures in courts are helping reduce the trend of the past where victims of these crimes were actually prosecuted as prostitutes. “We don’t want to prosecute victims,” Johnson said.  She described the frustration of trying to help a young 15-year-old girl who was four months pregnant, a runaway with a low IQ and who functioned at a third or fourth grade level and who also suffered with drug dependencies.  She said, “We cannot address these cases solely with the Juvenile Justice System.”

Houston Police Chief Charles McClellan described why Houston is the number one city in relation to these types of crimes.  “Texas is number two in reported cases of human trafficking and Houston is the number one city in the nation,” McClellan began.  He described Houston as having two large international airports, a major seaport, a large population of runaways and a robust economy.  He said all of these conditions feed what he described as a “well established sex industry.”

McClellan described the assistance the HPD provided to a small city about 100 miles south of Houston that did not have the resources to investigate massage parlors.  He said that with the joint effort there were able to break up a large network of parlors and rescued dozens of victims who are Chinese nationals.  He described one 16-year-old female victim who was beaten and raped by a “john.”  Her pimp refused to let her get medical attention until she had met her daily quota.

“We need help from the federal government,” McClellan explained.  He cited three areas where the feds could be of assistance: a national database to track victims and others involved in human trafficking;  more resources  for adult victims (he said there are currently good programs for juveniles); and, he urged passage of the Justice for Victims Enforcement Act authored by Texas Congressman Ted Poe and Senator John Cornyn.

Congressman Poe discussed the need to focus on the victims of these crimes.  Citing a national shortage of bed space to house victims, Poe said many victims are put in jail because there is no place else to put them.  He said there are 5,000 animal shelters across the country.  “Not that I have anything against animal shelters,” Poe stated, “but there are only 500 beds available for child trafficking victims in the United States.”

Poe said society puts too many victims in jail when they should be treated as victims.  “We must rescue them first,” Poe stated.  He claimed the human trafficking industry is filled with “run-away, throw-away, stole-away” children.  He said Congress must also fix the broken U-Visa system.

Congressman Al Green (D-TX) expressed outrage that the stash house that was busted yesterday was in his very own congressional district. “These are my people,” Green exclaimed.  He said regardless of from where they came, they must be protected. “The U.S. Constitution protects you when you are in this country, no matter where you came from.”  He pledged to go visit the house where neighbors said they noticed nothing unusual before yesterday’s raid.  He quoted the Houston Chronicle article that said there was a large “Keep Out” sign in the front yard of the stash house.  Green pledged to visit the stash house and “see what was hiding in plain sight.”

Sheriff Garcia said one of the biggest problems in rescuing victims and increasing prosecutions is getting victims to come forward.  Often, he explained, the victims have been threatened and trained to be afraid of police.  He said there are often threats against the victims’ families in their home country.  These factors often lead to victims often taking a long time, if ever, to come forward.  He explained there is a problem in the victim status visas getting processed if the victim doesn’t come forward immediately.  Often times, he said, “the visas can be delayed or denied completely.”  He urged Congress to fix this.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) added, “We don’t like to use the word slavery in this country.”  Slavery is exactly what these victims often face and the word should be used without hesitation.

The Congressional panel was composed of Chairman Mike McCall (R-TX), and fellow Congressmen Ted Poe (R-TX), Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Gene Green (D-TX) and Al Green (D-TX).  Government witnesses included HSI SAIC Brian Moskowitz, Texas DPS Director Mike McCraw, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Ann Johnson and Houston Police Chief Charles McClellan. 

Follow Bob Price on Twitter @BobPriceBBTX


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