MIAMI -- As a Greyhound bus prepared to leave a small town near Atlanta, 19-year-old Azucena headed to the window seat on the last row, on her way to Miami to start school and a new life.
She propped a pillow against the glass and drifted off to sleep as the bus glided down the highway toward South Florida.
Around 5 a.m., Azucena, who does not want her last name used, woke up when the bus driver pulled up to the Pompano Beach bus station -- one stop before her final destination.
Three U.S. Border Patrol agents boarded, announcing they would be checking IDs. She lifted her head to see one agent walking directly toward her.
"It kind of looked like they already knew who they were looking for, because they went straight to the back where I was," said Azucena, now enrolled in a beauty school in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
At that moment, one frightening thought raced through her mind: "Oh my God I'm being deported!"
Azucena spent the next 76 days in a federal immigration center, Broward Transitional Center, becoming one of a fast-growing number of undocumented immigrants caught in what may be the latest crackdown: grabbing them from public transportation, mainly Greyhound and Amtrak.
Immigration searches on public transportation sites are not well publicized. Border patrol agents generally protect the border or coastline. But, Steve Cribby, spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says agents have the authority to conduct immigration checks in public places. And checks on Greyhound buses and Amtrak are meant to disrupt human smuggling activities into the country's interior, he said.
The checks are consistent with previous years, he said. Citing law enforcement sensitivity, border patrol officials would not provide figures on apprehensions on public transportation.
But attorneys and others say they have definitely seen an increase.
"I am definitely seeing a large number of people stopped by Greyhound," said attorney Sara Van Hofwegen, who worked with Azucena to get her deportation order deferred under the proposed DREAM Act, which will provides a path to citizenship for some.
On one recent visit to the BTC in Southwest Broward, Van Hofwegen spoke to 12 detainees. Five of the 12 were apprehended on a Greyhound.
"I'd say Greyhound cases make up about 20 percent of our clients now," said Juliet Williams, an assistant with the law offices of Kantaras & Andreopoulos, with offices in Central Florida. "That is much more than we've usually seen."
She estimates the firm has seen an increase in Greyhound apprehensions of about 25 percent in the past two years.
Between October 2010 and May 2011, immigration agents in Florida arrested around 2,900 undocumented immigrants. That includes arrests made on public transportation, apprehensions through routine highway stops and drug cases.
"We assist local and government officials like (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol as needed," said Greyhound spokesperson Bonnie Bastian in an email. "We are unaware of when and why they are at our stations until they arrive."
As for Amtrak, spokesperson Christina Leeds said the service has a "long-standing relationship" with federal law enforcement agencies.
"Amtrak works closely and cooperates with all federal, state and local" agencies, she said.
Azucena arrived in the United States at age 9, hiding at the feet of passengers in a truck smuggling her family into a Texas border town.
Now, 10 years later, agents were placing her and her two large suitcases in the back of their patrol truck.
"I felt like I was there for something that someone else made a choice for me. That it was not right, but my parents were just trying to do the best they could."
On that particular day, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010, Azucena began crying hysterically on the bus after she handed Border Patrol agents her Mexican passport.
"They were just trying to calm me down. They didn't even handcuff me ... they were just like, 'Calm down. Calm down. It's OK. It's OK.' "
Agents drove Azucena to the BTC, a detention facility reserved for undocumented persons with no criminal convictions.
Most of the 120 women in the center when she arrived were apprehended the same way.
"On a Greyhound," she said. "The most common was Greyhound."
Though she's out with the help of Van Hofwegen, from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), Azucena, now 20, is still nervous about the status of her family and herself.
When she was in 10th grade, she was confronted with her illegal status after landing her first job at a Georgia Wendy's. She never showed because she did not have a Social Security number.
"I was qualified to get the job and just because I had no Social, I couldn't go," she said. "I felt like I was out of place."
Guatemalan native Juan Ordones Lima's immigration status caught up with him when he was traveling back to his family in Homestead in early May after finishing a construction job up north. His Pennsylvania employer had purchased him a Greyhound ticket home.
During a 9 a.m. stop in Jacksonville on May 11, 2011, agents boarded the bus.
Lima, 22, living in Homestead for the past seven years, could not provide proof of legal status. He was brought to the BTC.
That day, some 60 other men showed up to the facility, Lima told his wife.
"He hears people talking that they were caught while driving or being a passenger somewhere," said his wife Eulalia.
Azucena is slowly getting her confidence back after five months in school. Following her February release from detention, she was granted a Social Security number and a two year-work permit.
Now, Azucena said, "I would actually take the Greyhound again. Just so they ask me for my papers and I can (say) 'here you go.' "
(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.
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