Smugglers Exploit Housing Market Woes

Smugglers Exploit Housing Market Woes

The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 4:57 PM

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Unable to sell his house in suburban Phoenix's anemic real estate market, Jason Winterholler rented to a couple who paid the deposit in cash and didn't haggle over price.

It was a deal he came to regret.

The renters were fronts for immigrant smugglers who used the house as a hiding place for illegal immigrants and trashed the home. In October, a SWAT team drove an armored personnel carrier onto the lawn and raided the house, rounding up nearly two dozen people.

“That was the biggest disappointment. I definitely felt violated,” said Winterholler, a high school athletic director now living in Pasadena, Calif. He said that whenever he spoke to the renters, “everything seemed OK.”

Immigrant smugglers are seeing a business opportunity in the nation's mortgage crisis: They are renting vacant new homes in the Phoenix suburbs and using them as stash houses for the people they have slipped across the Mexican border, authorities say.

Stash houses are stopover points where smugglers collect their fees and make travel arrangements for immigrants headed to points throughout the country.

The homeowners, often out-of-state residents who bought the houses as investments, get suckered into renting to immigrant smugglers because they are desperate to generate income from properties that aren't selling, authorities say. The background checks they do on the prospective renters are not as rigorous as they might otherwise be.

Immigrant smugglers “are opportunistic,” said Troy Henley, deputy special agent in charge of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona. “They will go where it's easiest and where it gives them the most benefit.”

The Phoenix metropolitan area is believed to have about 1,000 immigrant stash houses. Exactly how many of them are new houses that languished on the market and were rented out in desperation is unclear. But authorities say they are seeing more and more such cases.

Immigration authorities elsewhere said they have no evidence the same thing is happening in other cities near the country's southern border.

Arizona is the busiest entry point for illegal immigrants coming through Mexico, and Phoenix's proximity to the border has made it the nation's busiest smuggling hub.

Smugglers started renting vacant new suburban homes in Phoenix a few months ago, and the practice is expected to increase during the peak smuggling season that begins in mid-January, authorities say.

Although knowingly renting homes to immigrant smugglers leaves properties open to seizure by the government, immigration agents said they don't believe the homeowners are intentionally helping the traffickers, because most people would not want their new properties to get trashed.

After getting a tip that smugglers were holding immigrants for ransom at Winterholler's home 25 miles from downtown Phoenix, police girded for a violent confrontation that never came. They entered by knocking down a door and punching holes in the ceiling so they could throw in tear gas canisters.

Twenty-two illegal immigrants were kept in an upstairs bedroom that had plywood nailed over its windows to prevent escapes and a milk jug that served as a toilet. Flies buzzed amid the empty beer cars and open bags of garbage that littered the house.

No smugglers were arrested; they may have given immigration agents the slip. The home had $11,000 in damage. The couple who acted as the front for the renters disappeared.

The housing glut here is blamed on the mortgage crisis along with overbuilding by developers who misjudged the appeal of homes a considerable commuting distance from Phoenix.

Homes like Winterholler's appeal to smugglers because of the privacy. They have garage doors that allow people to be brought in undetected. Subdivisions with lots of vacant homes have fewer neighbors who might call police. Unlike motels and apartments, which also are used as stash houses, houses don't share walls or courtyards with the neighbors.

And while smugglers have long used rental houses, these new suburban homes are in places where neighbors wouldn't expect to find illegal immigrants hiding.

Tyler Renner, who lives on the same block, said he and other neighbors never noticed people or sounds coming from the Winterholler house.

Police said homeowners should do credit and criminal background checks on prospective tenants. They also warned owners to be skeptical of overly favorable deals and resist the urge to skip background checks just because the prospective renters seem nice.

Winterholler, who moved into his roughly $260,000 house brand-new in 2006 and lived there until last August, said the man and woman who rented the place provided four references, all of which checked out.

As tenants for nearly three months, the couple always paid on time and answered Winterholler's calls, he said.

“I remember when they came over,” Winterholler said. “We gave them water. I shook his hand.”