Combating Alien Smuggling:

Opportunities Exist to Improve the Federal Response

GAO-05-305: Published: May 27, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2005.

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Globally, alien smuggling generates billions of dollars in illicit revenues annually and poses a threat to the nation's security. Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in March 2003 has provided an opportunity to use financial investigative techniques to combat alien smugglers by targeting and seizing their monetary assets. For instance, the composition of DHS's largest investigative component--U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--includes the legacy Customs Service, which has extensive experience with money laundering and other financial crimes. Another DHS component, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has primary responsibility for interdictions between ports of entry. In summer 2003, ICE announced that it was developing a national strategy for combating alien smuggling. Among other objectives, GAO determined the implementation status of the strategy and investigative results in terms of convictions and seized assets.

As of April 2005, ICE had not finalized its strategy for combating alien smuggling. ICE was adjusting the draft strategy to focus on the southwest border and encompass all aspects of smuggling, aliens as well as drugs and other contraband. In adjusting the strategy, ICE officials stressed the importance of incorporating lessons learned from ongoing follow-the-money approaches such as Operation ICE Storm, a multi-agency task force launched in October 2003 to crack down on migrant smuggling and related violence in Arizona. Also, the strategy's effectiveness depends partly on having clearly defined roles and responsibilities for ICE and CBP, two DHS components that have complementary antismuggling missions. In this regard, ICE and CBP signed a memorandum of understanding in November 2004 to address their respective roles and responsibilities, including provisions for sharing information and intelligence. Currently, however, there is no mechanism in place for tracking the number and the results of referrals made by CBP to ICE for investigation. CBP and ICE officials acknowledged that establishing a tracking mechanism could have benefits for both DHS components. Such a mechanism would help ICE ensure that appropriate action is taken on the referrals. Also, CBP could continue to pursue certain leads if ICE--for lack of available resources or other reasons--cannot take action on the referrals. In fiscal year 2004, about 2,400 criminal defendants were convicted in federal district courts under the primary alien-smuggling statute, and ICE reported seizures totaling $7.3 million from its alien-smuggling investigations. For the first 6 months of fiscal year 2005, ICE reported $7.8 million in seizures from alien-smuggling investigations. A concern raised by ICE and the Department of Justice is the lack of adequate statutory civil forfeiture authority for seizing real property, such as "stash" houses where smugglers hide aliens while awaiting payment and travel arrangements to final destinations throughout the nation. However, Justice does not have a legislative proposal on this subject pending before Congress because the department's legislative policy resources have been focused on other priorities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its response letter (dated May 1, 2006), DHS reported the following: "A working group of information technology experts was established to develop a new data processing system to be utilized by ICE and CBP/OBP. This project is a joint venture with representatives from both ICE and CBP/OBP providing input and expertise. This new data system, which is currently in the early planning stage, will contain data entry fields that will allow CBP/OBP to generate and distribute lead information directly to ICE. ICE will have the ability to update the status of the lead information and provide a final disposition. The new system will create a cost effective mechanism for tracking the number and results of referrals by CBP/OBP to ICE." More recently, in 2009, GAO's ongoing alien smuggling work under code 440757 determined that such a system has not been implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal response to alien smuggling, the Secretary of Homeland Security should establish a cost-effective mechanism for tracking the number and results of referrals by CBP to ICE.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, the Department of Justice implemented the recommendation by submitting to Congress a legislative proposal. The proposed language was included in a House Bill (HR 4437) and a Senate bill (S 2611). Both bills provided that any real or personal property used to commit or facilitate the commission of an alien smuggling offense in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1324 is subject to civil forfeiture;the forfeiture provision also includes the gross proceeds and any property traceable to such proceeds. However, even though the Department of Justice implemented GAO's recommendation, Congress did not enact the comprehensive immigration reform bill, which contained the subject forfeiture provision.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal response to alien smuggling, the Attorney General, in collaboration with the Secretary of Homeland Security, should consider developing and submitting to Congress a legislative proposal, with appropriate justification, for amending the civil forfeiture authority for real property used to facilitate the smuggling of aliens.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice


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