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Feds arrest 2, seize semi-trucks as part of months-long Nogales investigation

The night before a raid, a team of federal agents are tracking a red and white semi-tractor trailer that has just left the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19 as it heads north toward Tucson. 

In her car, Special Agent Molly Cozzens is trying to catch up from a rest stop just north of the checkpoint, while also deftly handling her cellphone and the radio. 

Cozzens, a former Border Patrol agent, is a relatively new member of Homeland Security Investigations, and she pushes her sedan hard as she maneuvers through increasingly dense traffic at I-19 and Ajo Way. 

HSI is one of the "two houses" that make up U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the controversial agency that is largely responsible for the detention and deportation of people in the country illegally. Virtually unknown because of the wide footprint of its sister agency, Enforcement and Removal Operations, HSI has become Homeland Security's own FBI, focusing on a wide-range of crimes and conspiracies, including how people may try to end run around the terms of a particular visa. 

The semi-truck has gotten through construction traffic at Ajo Way, and has turned off the highway and parked in a quiet lot on Tucson's South Side, and Cozzens pulls into a position where the lights of the rig are visible, but she's tucked in front of a welding company where she waits to see if the driver switches vehicles with another man, who will take his cargo to a port in Los Angeles. Later, a Department of Public Safety officer will track the semi-truck and find a reason to stop the vehicle, making sure to grab the driver's name and the cargo manifest, laying down more groundwork for a widening federal case. 

This moment will help build a case she's been investigating since January, based around the around the idea of cabotage: a wrinkle of U.S. law under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which limits how drivers, bringing cargo in from farms and factories in Mexico, can haul goods through the U.S., especially under a B-1 Temporary Business Visitor visa. 

Drivers with such visas cannot unload their cargo in warehouses in Nogales and Rio Rico, and then continue on with new cargo, because that would violate "cabotage" regulations, owing to a nearly century-old law originally designed to protect the newly-created Merchant Marines that in modern times attempts to limit competition for U.S. truck drivers. 

In the last four years, federal officials have issued around 210,000 B-1 visas and more than 31 million B-2 visas, which are for business and tourism. 

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The visa is meant for people who come to the U.S. on business, and truck drivers can only use that visa to drive a trailer loaded with goods into the U.S, or directly to a final destination, remaining in the stream of international commerce. 

"Simplest explanation is, under the provisions of NAFTA, Mexican truck drivers on B-1 visas can drive goods into the U.S. as they do every day, and can transport them until they hit the point of entering domestic commerce, which basically means the first stop in the U.S," said Scott Brown, Special Agent in Charge for HSI Arizona. "What has been happening as systemic problem in Nogales and other border communities, is you have trucking companies that are using B-1 truck drivers to in violation of cabotage rules to transport loads that have already entered domestic commerce." 

Brown said that the case began when Border Patrol agents at the I-19 checkpoint saw a "pattern" of drivers on B-1 visas leaving with loads from produce warehouses in Nogales and Rio Rico "who had clearly entered U.S. commerce hitting the checkpoint." 

Brown said the agency reminded trucking companies in Nogales about the rules and told them to "knock it off," and some companies instead of complying, "brazenly continued to violate the law," Brown said. 

Rather than following the rules, companies began using U.S. truck drivers to get loads through the I-19 checkpoint, they would stop at a rest area or a business park and switch drivers. 

Brown said that trucking companies continued to do this because drivers under B-1 visas are paid far less per mile, a disparity that anecdotally means drivers are paid 20 cents per mile, rather than a rate of 60 cents. "And, that creates an un-level playing field for the trucking companies that are trying to do it right," and makes fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S. slightly more expensive than produced harvested in Mexican fields. "So, it's not just impacting truck drivers, it's impacting domestic farmers. It's a significant economic toll on the U.S," Brown said. 

Brown said that officials in east Texas had broken up similar schemes. 

Last September, local trucking companies were warned that they had until the first of the year to come into compliance, and stop sending drivers with B-1 visas through the I-19 checkpoint. 

While the regulations have long been in place, Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector were not enforcing the regulations at the I-19 checkpoint. 

In a statement emailed to the Nogales International last September, Border Patrol said that while federal immigration regulations and policies "provide that foreign commercial truck drivers may qualify for temporary entry with a B-1 visa to pick up or deliver cargo traveling in the stream of international commerce," the agency alerted trucking companies that "these regulations do not allow for commercial drivers in the United States on a B-1 visa to carry cargo in violation of cabotage laws, i.e. domestic point-to-point hauling or other purely domestic service or solicitation." 

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"Should a driver engage in such activity, he/she would be engaging in unauthorized employment in the United States in violation of (federal statutes)," the spokesman wrote. 

On Thursday morning, more than a hundred agents from Homeland Security, including U.S. Border Patrol agents, HSI special agents, and officers from the Office of Field Operations, which governs the Mariposa and Dennis DeConcini ports of entry in Nogales, have assembled for a briefing. By mid-morning, dozens of federal agents load into their vehicles, mostly large SUVs like the Border Patrol's standard Chevy Tahoe.

Then, it's a caravan from the office to multiple sites in Nogales, including homes and business such as JSJ Enterprises, a trucking company based just outside the city limits. 

Federal officials arrested Jimmy Watson Sr., the company's owner, and charged him with nine counts of violating federal law, including eight counts of harboring illegal aliens for profit, and one count of unlawful employment of aliens. 

Agents also began seizing computers and documents from JSJ Enterprises, and also seized several semi-tractor trailers. 

According to an indictment, Watson hired several people, identified in court documents only by their initials, "knowingly" concealed, harbored, and shielded from detection." From April 23 to July 17, Watson also "knowingly hired, continued to employ and engage in a pattern and practice of hiring and continuing to employ" people who were legally violating the terms of their visa. 

Watson faces forfeiture claims and could lose six semi-tractors, along with five trailers and four private vehicles, to the federal government. 

Another man was arrested and charged, but that indictment remains sealed and unavailable to the public. 

Watson complained about the new regulations to the Nogales International, telling the paper, "Long story short, if we don’t fix this soon, 100 companies will close in Nogales." 

Brown estimated that along with two criminal arrests, there were between 6 and 10 "administrative arrests," including not just the operation in Nogales, but also a similar operation in Los Angeles, the "primary" destination for produce coming through Nogales, he said. 

Brown said he didn't know how many B-1 visas could be rescinded due to this operation. "I think that's a tough question," he said, adding that the operation may expand over time. 

"The focus will remain on compliance, so I think those who don't get the message today will still see an increased effort," Brown said, noting that BP and DPS will continue to look for people violating their B-1 visa. "There are lawful reasons that the B-1 truck driver can be legally hauling produce in the U.S., just as long as it does not enter U.S. commerce."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

HSI and CBP agents head toward parked semi-trucks to check serial numbers as part of a long-running investigation into violations of the B-1 visa by Nogales-area trucking companies.