Alien Smuggling:

DHS Needs to Better Leverage Investigative Resources and Measure Program Performance along the Southwest Border

GAO-10-328: Published: May 24, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 22, 2010.

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Alien smuggling along the southwest border is a threat to the security of the United States and Mexico. Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Office of Investigations (OI)--part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--is the primary federal agency responsible for investigating alien smuggling along the southwest border. As requested, this report addresses, for the southwest border, (1) OI's efforts to counter alien smuggling since 2005, and opportunities, if any, for ICE to use its resources more effectively; (2) the progress DHS has made in seizing alien smugglers' assets since fiscal year 2005 and any promising techniques that could be applied to seize smugglers' assets; and (3) the extent to which ICE has objectives related to alien smuggling and measures to assess progress. GAO interviewed officials in all four OI offices along the southwest border and analyzed data on OI's cases and seizures, from fiscal years 2005 through 2009.

OI work years spent investigating alien smuggling increased from 190 to 197 from fiscal years 2005 through 2009, and an opportunity exists to better leverage resources. Officials from two of the four OI offices GAO visited said that in addition to conducting criminal investigations, OI has been tasked to respond to calls from state and local law enforcement to process and transport aliens for possible removal, which diverts OI resources from conducting alien smuggling and other investigations. In 2006, the Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO), another ICE subcomponent, took over responsibility for responding to state and local law enforcement calls in the Phoenix metropolitan area, through the Law Enforcement Agency Response (LEAR) program. For this program, officials from DRO, not OI, transport and process aliens for removal. From October 1, 2008, to May 24, 2009, the LEAR program processed 3,776 aliens, aliens who OI would have otherwise had to process. By studying the feasibility of expanding the LEAR program, ICE would be in a better position to determine if it could more efficiently direct its OI resources toward alien smuggling and other investigations. OI's alien smuggling asset seizures have decreased since 2005; however, opportunities exist to leverage additional seizure and financial investigative techniques. According to OI data, alien smuggling seizures nationwide increased in value from about $11.2 million in 2005 to about $17.4 million in 2007, but declined to about $12.2 million in fiscal year 2008 and to about $7.6 million in fiscal year 2009. One opportunity to leverage financial techniques to disrupt alien smuggling and seize assets involves assessing the financial investigative techniques used by an Arizona task force. The task force seized millions of dollars and disrupted alien smuggling operations by following cash transactions flowing through money transmitters that serve as the primary method of payment to those individuals responsible for smuggling aliens. An overall assessment of whether and how these techniques may be applied in the context of disrupting alien smuggling could help ensure that ICE is not missing opportunities to take additional actions and leverage resources to support the common goal of countering alien smuggling. ICE has established objectives for its alien smuggling-related enforcement programs, but could do more to better measure progress toward achieving program objectives. For example, one of its components, DRO, has defined the objective of the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program (MIRP) as to remove aliens who are apprehended during the hot and dangerous summer months from the United States to the interior of Mexico to deter them from returning in order to reduce loss of life and to help disrupt alien smuggling operations; however, DRO has not established performance measures to evaluate its progress in meeting its objective consistent with internal control standards. Thus, ICE does not know the effectiveness of its efforts related to MIRP at deterring individuals from illegally returning to the United States. GAO recommends, among other things, that DHS evaluate the feasibility of expanding the LEAR program, assess the Arizona Attorney General's investigations strategy, and develop performance measures for MIRP. DHS agreed with four of five recommendations in this report directed to DHS but disagreed with establishing MIRP performance measures because it did not believe such action was appropriate. GAO believes this recommendation is consistent with the program's intent.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) directorate within DHS' Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported that its investigative resources were strained. However, in some cases HSI investigators were conducting immigration-related activities that were not consistent with HSI's primary mission of conducting criminal investigations such as responding to calls for assistance from state and local law enforcement agencies to apprehend and remove aliens unlawfully in the country. In 2006, another ICE subcomponent, took over responsibility for responding to state and local law enforcement calls in the Phoenix metropolitan area, through the Law Enforcement Agency Response (LEAR) program, allowing HSI agents to spend more time on criminal investigations. Therefore, we recommended that the Assistant Secretary for ICE evaluate the feasibility of expanding the LEAR program to be in a better position to determine if it could more efficiently direct its HSI resources toward alien smuggling and other investigations. In July 2012, ICE reported that it conducted an analysis of the LEAR program and developed a proposal to expand LEAR teams to additional field offices along the southwest border as part of ICE's Criminal Alien Program. ICE proposed placing these teams in the areas with the highest need to help respond to calls from state, local, federal, and tribal law enforcement agencies 24 hour per day, 7 days per week. However, ICE reported that DHS could not identify sufficient funds to implement LEAR expansion. Because ICE studied the feasibility of expanding LEAR along the southwest border, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to improve federal efforts to address alien smuggling, the Assistant Secretary for ICE should better align agency staff responsibilities with their agency missions and improve efficiency, study the feasibility of expanding the Law Enforcement Agency Response (LEAR) program along the southwest border and, if it is found to be feasible, expand the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that alien smuggling along the southwest border was an increasing threat to the security of the United States and Mexico. To counter this threat, a Task Force led by the Arizona Attorney General had disrupted alien smuggling operations and seized alien smugglers assets by focusing on cash transactions through money service businesses, the primary method of payment to alien smugglers. Officials in DHS's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Directorate within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) believed that a fuller examination of Arizona's financial investigative techniques and their potential for use at the federal level to counter alien smuggling across the southwest border could help ensure that HSI is not missing opportunities to take additional actions and leverage resources to support the common goal of countering alien smuggling. Therefore, we recommended that the Assistant Secretary for ICE conduct an assessment of the Arizona Attorney General's financial investigations strategy to identify any promising investigative techniques for federal use. In July 2011, ICE responded that it had reached out to the Arizona Attorney General's Financial Crimes Task Force to evaluate the feasibility of adopting financial investigative techniques within HSI investigations. In July 2014, ICE reported that techniques identified through its evaluation were incorporated into HSI training and are used by HSI investigators. Specifically, HSI developed an internal training program after the evaluation to enhance financial training for all agents in all disciplines. According to ICE, the training allows investigators to acquire and maintain the expertise necessary to fully identify and exploit the financial aspect of alien smuggling cases. ICE also reported that HSI developed financial investigative techniques similar to those used by the AZ Attorney General, such as developing "red flag" indicators of financial transactions that are associated with alien smuggling organizations, including suspicious transactions at money services businesses. ICE's evaluation of the AZ Attorney General's financial investigation techniques and subsequent incorporation of some of those techniques into HSI training and investigative work meets the intent of our recommendation. With these new techniques in place, ICE is better positioned to address alien smuggling on the Southwest border.

    Recommendation: In order to improve federal efforts to address alien smuggling, the Assistant Secretary for ICE should determine whether ICE could utilize Arizona's financial investigative techniques to address alien smuggling, direct Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC) or another ICE-designated entity to conduct an assessment of the Arizona Attorney General's financial investigations strategy to identify any promising investigative techniques for federal use.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that seizing alien smugglers assets is one of the objectives of the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Directorate within the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). However, HSI did not have a performance measure for asset seizures related to alien smuggling cases. Tracking the use of asset seizures in alien smuggling investigations as a performance measure could help HSI monitor its progress toward its goal of denying smuggling organizations the profit from criminal acts. Therefore, we recommended that the Assistant Secretary for ICE develop performance measures for asset seizures related to alien smuggling investigations in order to better assess HSI's progress toward its investigative goals. In response, ICE reported that it developed an investigative program for criminal investigations related to human smuggling called Project STAMP (Smuggler's and Trafficker's Assets, Monies and Proceeds), an HSI initiative to follow the money trail of alien smugglers and seize the assets of alien smuggling organizations. According to ICE, the investigative program is used as a monitoring tool to track HSI financial investigations and asset seizures related to alien smuggling to ensure that financial authorities and seizure techniques are fully leveraged against alien smuggling organizations. The investigations under the program also allow ICE to better track and maintain financial statistics related to alien smuggling cases. As a result, ICE will be better positioned to assess the effectiveness of its asset seizure efforts.

    Recommendation: In order to improve federal efforts to address alien smuggling, the Assistant Secretary for ICE should better assess OI's progress toward its investigative goals, develop performance measures for asset seizures related to alien smuggling investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) directorate within the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program (MIRP) which removes aliens from the United States to the interior of Mexico. Although the program's objectives are to deter individuals from returning and help disrupt alien smuggling operations, ERO had not fully evaluated the program's progress in meeting these objectives. Therefore, we recommended that the Assistant Secretary for ICE develop performance measures for the program to help ensure that the program achieves the results intended. DHS disagreed with our recommendation because it believed that performance measures for this program would not be appropriate and would shift the focus away from the program's original lifesaving intent and diminish and possibly endanger cooperation with the Government of Mexico. However, we believed that establishing performance measures for the program would be consistent with the 2004 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the United States and Mexico establishing the program which stated that the principles set forth in the MOU be periodically evaluated. As of March 2014, ICE did not plan to develop performance measures specific to MIRP.

    Recommendation: In order to improve federal efforts to address alien smuggling, the Assistant Secretary for ICE should help ensure that Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO's) Mexican Interior Repatriation Program (MIRP) achieves the results intended, develop performance measures for the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that alien smuggling along the southwest border is a threat to the security of the United States and Mexico. In order to deter aliens from repeatedly crossing the border illegally and to deter alien smuggling, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) implemented three different alien smuggling-related enforcement programs. However, CBP did not have performance measures for any of these programs. As a result, CBP program officials may lack critical information with which to track the progress they are making toward program goals. Therefore, we recommended that the CBP Commissioner establish a plan, including performance measures, with time frames for evaluating CBP's alien smuggling-related enforcement programs in order to help ensure that these programs achieve the results intended. In May 2012, CBP informed GAO that in response to our recommendation it had completed draft performance measures for each of the programs in January 2011. Also in January 2011, the Border Patrol initiated an approach designed to evaluate all available enforcement consequences including Streamline, Operation Against Smugglers Initiative on Safety and Security, and Alien Transfer Exit Program, through measures that capture the total effects of the programs, rather than of each individual program. The measures are: (1) percent of southwest Border Patrol sectors that have fully implemented a standard methodology that delivers consequences for illegally crossing the border between the ports of entry; (2) percent of people apprehended multiple times; and (3) average number of apprehensions for persons with multiple apprehensions. CBP began assessing these measures during fiscal year 2012. Because the programs we identified in our report seek to lower recidivism among smuggled aliens and their smugglers, CBP's new performance measures meet the intent of our recommendation. With these new measures, CBP will better assess the effectiveness of its efforts to apply meaningful consequences to aliens who cross the border between the ports of entry illegally.

    Recommendation: In order to improve federal efforts to address alien smuggling, and to help ensure that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP's) alien smuggling-related enforcement programs achieve the results intended, the Commissioner of CBP should establish a plan, including performance measures, with time frames for evaluating CBP's enforcement programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Civil asset forfeiture authority allows federal authorities to seize property used to facilitate a crime without first having to convict the property owner of a crime. We found that a lack of civil asset forfeiture authority for real property used to facilitate alien smuggling made federal seizure of real property (such as real estate) infrequent and difficult in alien smuggling cases. As a result, we recommended that the Attorney General should assess whether amending the civil forfeiture authority for real property used to facilitate the smuggling of aliens remained necessary and, if it remained necessary, develop and submit to Congress such an amendment with appropriate justification. In November 2011, DOJ provided written and oral testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. A portion of the written testimony proposed the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA), which sought to update federal civil forfeiture capabilities by expanding the scope of civil forfeiture authority to include facilitating property, or property that enables crime to occur, and by broadening the categories of facilitating property that can be civilly forfeited in connection with alien smuggling. The POCA proposal related to civil asset forfeiture authority is consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve federal efforts to address alien smuggling, and to enhance the ability of the federal government to seize real property associated with alien smuggling activities, the Attorney General should assess whether amending the civil forfeiture authority for real property used to facilitate the smuggling of aliens remains necessary and, if it remains necessary, develop and submit to Congress such an amendment with appropriate justification.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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