JEFFERSON COUNTY, Mo. - A routine traffic stop turned into an immigration investigation after the Jefferson County Sherriff’s Office stopped a car with 10 people inside on northbound I-55 south of Festus on late Monday afternoon.
"The stop was immediate as far as yielding to law enforcement," said Captain Gary Higginbotham. "But upon investigation trying to identify any type of documents, as far as a driver's license, eight of the 10 occupants fled the area on foot."
Higginbotham said that three of the eight people were captured and, along with two other occupants, turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for investigation.
Deputies said that the occupants' ages ranged from 14 to 40.
"During that investigation, there was a hit on the plate that's known for trafficking from Mexico in this particular case," Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham went on to confirm that the office received numerous complaints from citizens concerned for their safety.
He said it is unknown if the outstanding suspected immigrants remain in the area, but there is no reason to believe that anyone is in danger.
"The fear was out there but we have no knowledge," he said. "We are not saying these are bad people, good people, we don't know; we don't have them identified. We don't know who is outstanding at this point."
Marie-Aimèe Abizera, the director for the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, said the organization believes that incidents like these don't automatically mean fear for personal safety.
"There is some ignorance when it comes to crime statistics, but at the same time, I don't think people should be afraid of someone because they're an immigrant," said Abizera. "Judging them before you know what's happening, but it's also not taking time to know that they are humans, it's not taking time to know that their families are trying to take care of their own family members, whose kids are trying to go to school. They are not criminals just because they are undocumented."
As of Tuesday, the office had increased patrol and continued searching for the five other people who escaped from the group.