The Cost of a Tighter Border: People-Smuggling Networks

Peter Skerry and
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College
Stephen J. Rockwell

May 5, 1998

THE RECENT DECLARATION by the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that the border near San Diego “has reached a level of control” and is “now stable” masks an alarming development. The very factors that Commissioner Doris Meissner cites in the INS’ success story also signal the emergence of more formidable and resilient adversaries along the U.S.-Mexico border. Get-tough campaigns like Operation Gatekeeper are creating new opportunities for sophisticated immigrant-smuggling rings with ties to organized crime and drug traffickers.

The INS’ tighter control of the border has put a premium on resources that criminal organizations possess. Increasing the difficulty and cost of illegal entry into the United States benefit smuggling operations that have the transportation and communication capabilities to evade a more aggressive and technologically equipped INS. Border Patrol agents, for example, report the appearance of 18-wheelers carrying 100 or more immigrants, along with the usual rental trucks ferrying 25 to 30. Agents say the drivers are no longer moonlighting amateurs, but professional smugglers.

A multiagency federal task force, under the direction of U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin, has estimated that as many as 10 to 12 family-based smuggling rings work the U.S.-Mexico border. One is the Tijuana-based Peralta brothers, which was originally dubbed Los Tres Hermanos (the Three Brothers) until authorities discovered a fourth brother operating in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Although rings like the Peraltas’ smuggle only immigrants, not drugs, into the United States, they pose nonetheless a serious threat to U.S. law enforcement. For example, the Peraltas succeeded in placing a U.S. Customs agent on their payroll. He waved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smuggled immigrants through his inspection lane at the San Ysidro port of entry.

The smuggling organizations communicate around the globe, relying on cell phones with hard-to-trace numbers as well as on more sophisticated digital equipment, according to INS agents. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, smugglers possess the technology to observe, then communicate to their field operatives the shifting deployments of the Border Patrol and its monitoring equipment. This capability has set off a technological arms race. As the Border Patrol pours more resources into night-vision scopes, weight sensors and giant X-ray machines for seeing into trucks, smuggling rings counter with their own state-of-the-art equipment paid for by increased fees. Smuggling operations such as the Peraltas’ are capable of gathering individuals from all over the world and transporting them north across the border and on to distant U.S. cities. Large ranches in Mexico serve as staging areas where hundreds of immigrants can be housed and fed until ready to be moved north. In the United States, smuggling rings operate networks of drop houses where illegal immigrants are kept until they arrive at their destinations—and until their relatives pay off the balance of their fees.

Not surprisingly, smuggling fees for destinations distant from the border are higher than the $700-$1,000 it takes to get from Tijuana to Los Angeles, which raises the question of how illegal immigrants manage their debts to the smugglers. Last summer, two groups of deaf Mexicans who had been smuggled into the United States were found living in virtual bondage in New York City and in North Carolina, where they had been sent by their captors to meet daily quotas of earnings from trinket sales.

Other migrants have endured even worse treatment at the hands of smugglers. A recent Florida case involved 23 women from Veracruz, Mexico, some as young as 13 years old, who were enslaved in prostitution to pay off their $2,000 smuggling fees. When migrants from India and Nepal cannot pay fees of $30,000, they, in effect, are kidnapped and ransomed by their smugglers. The repayment of such sizable debts to criminal organizations can involve drugs. The Times recently reported on how Asian and African migrants are being smuggled into the United States through Central America. The cost of the $10,000 journey is often defrayed by migrants serving as “mules” carrying drugs into Mexico, where immigrants and drugs are separated for shipment north. Connecting these dots in recent testimony before Congress, William D. Cadman, INS counterterrorism coordinator, said:

“Alien smuggling reaches far beyond our borders with Mexico and Canada—to the Caribbean, all regions of the globe and deep within the interior of the United States itself. . . . Organized-crime syndicates and international terrorist organizations are known to use alien-smuggling operations to support and further their criminal objectives.”

Thus, none of this is news to federal officials. For some time, the INS has been touting its tactics against the smugglers. The most recent such example was the El Centro initiative, which targeted the smugglers themselves. As part of “Operation Global Reach,” the INS has opened 13 new overseas offices—for a total of 35—dedicated to the disruption of smuggling networks. Finally, in tandem with tougher anti-smuggling penalties enacted by Congress in 1996, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego has made smuggling one of its prosecutorial priorities.

Now that border-control efforts are showing positive results and public outrage toward immigrants has abated, experts and government officials have the opportunity to educate Americans about the toughness and patience necessary for the task ahead. As a nation of immigrants, we tend to romanticize new arrivals, even illegal ones, as heroic individuals acting on their own to pursue a better life.

Then, too, those who know better have failed to explain the smuggling problem adequately to the American people. Knowledgeable immigration experts have been reluctant to highlight smuggling for fear of stigmatizing all migrants caught up in such conspiracies as criminals.

INS officials have had a different challenge. Blessed with more resources than ever before, they have felt greater pressure to demonstrate quick results. Yet, serious anti-smuggling operations require high-risk, long-term investigations whose payoffs lie in the distant future. For example, it took 33 months to crack an operation that, over several years, had smuggled more than 500 nurses out of South Korea and the Philippines. When INS officials go after the smugglers, short-term operations designed to maintain public support of the agency typically undercut longer-term investigations. Gatekeeper has had some noteworthy successes, but the battle is far from over. Americans must understand that staying the course against illegal immigration will increasingly pit them against sophisticated, well-organized adversaries capable of countering the INS’ most zealous efforts. Above all, Americans need to recognize that both we and illegal immigrants are caught up in an expanding web of criminal conspiracy.