Combating Alien Smuggling:

The Federal Response Can Be Improved

GAO-05-892T: Published: Jul 12, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2005.

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Richard M. Stana
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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. This testimony is based on GAO's May 2005 report on the implementation status of the strategy and investigative results in terms of convictions and seized assets.

As of July 5, 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. CBP is primarily responsible for interdictions between ports of entry and ICE for investigations that extend to the U.S. interior. 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.

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