Homeland Security special agents are cracking down for the first time on trucking companies in Southern Arizona that they say unlawfully employ Mexican drivers, court records show.
Two owners of trucking companies in Nogales and Rio Rico were indicted by federal grand juries on charges of illegally employing Mexican drivers and harboring them for profit, according to indictments unsealed Oct. 22 and Oct. 23 in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
Luis Rivera and Jimmy Watson Sr. undercut U.S. drivers by hiring Mexican drivers willing to work for lower wages, Homeland Security Investigations special agents wrote in sworn affidavits filed in federal court.
The alleged scheme involved U.S. drivers hauling cucumbers, bell peppers and other produce, and in one instance beer, through the Border Patrol’s checkpoint on Interstate 19, south of Tucson. A Mexican driver with a business visa would drive through the checkpoint around the same time in a pickup truck or sedan.
After getting through the checkpoint, the U.S. driver pulled into parking lots at the Desert Diamond Casino, truck stops or motels and switched with the Mexican driver, who then hauled the produce to Los Angeles or Dallas, according to the affidavits.
The Mexican drivers held B-1 visas, which under the North American Free Trade Agreement allow them to bring cargo across the international border to a specific destination, but not to make point-to-point deliveries within the United States, also known as “cabotage.”
The investigation in Nogales and Rio Rico was the first of its kind by HSI on the U.S.-Mexico border, said Francisco Burrola, deputy special agent in charge for HSI in Tucson.
“We’re cracking the shell on this cabotage thing,” Burrola said, adding he has shared the “playbook” for the investigation with his counterparts along the border.
HSI special agents said Rivera, owner of L and R Trucking in Nogales and Sunset Truck Leasing in Rio Rico, ran the scheme 44 times. In a separate case, special agents accused Watson Sr., owner of JSJ Enterprises Transportation in Nogales, of running the scheme 23 times.
By hiding from law enforcement the fact that the Mexican drivers were violating the terms of their visas, a federal grand jury charged Rivera and Watson with harboring the drivers for profit.
Lawyers for Rivera and Watson did not respond to requests for comment.
Special agents also are asking a federal judge to order Rivera and Watson to each forfeit 15 vehicles used in the alleged scheme, including semi-tractor trailers and sedans, court records show.
The cross-border produce industry in Santa Cruz County ships billions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables by truck across the United States every year.
Truckers called an HSI tipline and said they were losing jobs because companies were hiring B-1 visa holders and paying them $300 to haul cargo to Los Angeles, when the rate for U.S. drivers was $600, Burrola said. Circumventing visa rules “hurts the trucking industry and it hurts the citizens of Santa Cruz County,” Burrola said.
The crackdown came after the Border Patrol gave Santa Cruz County trucking companies a Jan. 1 deadline to comply with the visa regulations.
Watson’s son, Jimmy Watson Jr., was quoted in a Nogales International story included in the affidavit as saying, “Long story short, if we don’t fix this soon, 100 companies will close in Nogales.”
The younger Watson was quoted in the story as saying regulations had been in place for a long time, but weren’t enforced by the Border Patrol at the I-19 checkpoint until Sabri Dikman took over as patrol agent-in-charge of the Nogales station in June 2017. Watson Jr., Rivera, and another trucking company owner were quoted as saying they had trouble finding qualified U.S. drivers.
HSI agents received an anonymous tip in January saying Rivera’s company was using Mexican truckers with B-1 visas. The next month, agents inspected the company’s records.
Agents also searched records at a produce company in Los Angeles in June. The company’s logs showed the produce, which in some cases originated from large packing companies in Nogales, arrived the day after law enforcement cameras captured the Watsons, Rivera, their family members or employees driving trucks through the I-19 checkpoint.
Local law enforcement or state troopers then pulled over several of the drivers.
About a dozen other people, including the Mexican drivers, were administratively arrested and returned to Mexico, Burrola said.