Fog rolled into Otay Mesa in the early morning hours of Nov. 6, shrouding the hole someone had cut in the U.S.-Mexico border fence. The conditions were ripe to move a large group of unauthorized immigrants through, and the smugglers took advantage.
In City Heights, Dania Olivero had agreed to have her small rented house used as a temporary staging point for the crossers. She said she thought only a handful of people would be brought to her, as had happened previous times. But wave after wave of people showed up. She protested at first, but took the extra money offered to her, she told investigators.
When San Diego police arrived, after two neighbors had reported seeing suspicious activity at the University Avenue home, they found 44 people in her house, in the backyard and in a shed.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Hayes sentenced Olivero to three years and one month in prison for her role in the smuggling effort. He said the number of people, as well as the “grim” conditions they were kept in, made it an aggravated crime.
Some of the immigrants complained they were locked inside a small shed without access to a bathroom, lights or ventilation, according to court records.
All of the immigrants were Mexican, except for two Guatemalans.
Olivero, 51, also is an immigrant, coming legally to the U.S. from Cuba at the age of 28, according to a sentencing document filed by her attorney.
Her involvement in human smuggling was an act of desperation, attorney Hootan Baigmohammadi said. The father of four of her children had died in 2011, and she made ends meet with food stamps, recycling cans, working odd jobs and support from her oldest son. An accident that left her with an injured wrist made it hard to work. She also was raising her partner’s two young children, whose mother had been deported.
“Life became really difficult for me,” Olivero wrote in a letter to the judge.
When she accepted the latest offer to hide immigrants from a man she’d met at a bar, she owed $1,100 in rent and back rent.
On a few occasions, she said, she had accepted $50 per unauthorized immigrant, and never more than a handful had shown up to her home. On Nov. 6, circumstances spiraled out of her control, her attorney argued. Five to seven waves of people came, her attorney said.
“I did it without thinking,” Olivero told the judge, apologizing for her actions. “I did it to pay my rent.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Cline said Olivero should have known there was a risk of more people showing up than she had anticipated.
In sentencing Olivero, the judge also took into consideration her criminal history, which included misdemeanor convictions for spousal abuse and theft.
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