A 26-year-old Mexican man was sentenced to prison Thursday for helping others cross illegally into the U.S. in an effort to repay his own smuggling debt.
Josue Bermudez-Lopez was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Great Falls to four months in prison for helping a group of people cross into Montana illegally from Canada in November.
Defense attorney Daniel Donovan said his client would get credit for the roughly three months he has already served. He'll be deported after that.
Bermudez-Lopez’s role included renting hotel rooms and a Chevrolet Tahoe for the group's travel.
U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested 19 people in one night. Five have been charged with smuggling or illegal re-entry crimes. Others involved have been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.
The arrests stemmed from a tip to law enforcement by a Cut Bank hotel employee reporting unusual room rental activity.
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Bermudez-Lopez had crossed into the U.S. illegally in November 2018, after agreeing to pay two men from Mexico $5,000 to guide him across the Canadian border, according to defense filings.
After leaving Calgary and crossing the border, Bermudez-Lopez was driven to Salt Lake City. He later flew to Kentucky, where he has family, and returned to Salt Lake City to obtain employment, his attorney said.
Bermudez-Lopez found landscaping work in Salt Lake City and was sending money back to his family in Mexico, which included a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, Donovan said. But he was unable to pay his smugglers, who threatened to kill him if he did not pay down his debt by helping smuggle others, the attorney said.
Bermudez-Lopez was to be credited $2,500 per smuggling operation, and had already completed one smuggling operation in August 2019, according to Donovan.
Federal guidelines called for a 12 to 18 month prison sentence, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Paulette Stewart recommended 12 months in court, Donovan said.
Bermudez-Lopez has no immigration or criminal history, a pre-sentence report found. Donovan said he believed U.S. District Judge Brian Morris found his client to be sympathetic.
“My client wasn’t a profiteer who was squeezing money from people and mistreating them and taking them across the border,” Donovan said.
Bermudez-Lopez pleaded guilty in December to transportation of illegal aliens.