This story was co-published with The Atlantic.
In his quest to build a border wall, President Donald Trump has warned of jobs stolen from American workers, suburbs terrorized by criminal aliens, and desperate migrant caravans headed north. Lately, though, he has found a favorite new target in the “ruthless coyotes” and “vicious cartels” that smuggle migrants into the United States. “Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate — it is actually very cruel,” Trump said in his State of the Union speech. “Smugglers use migrant children as human pawns to exploit our laws and gain access to our country.”
Yet Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies have made America’s historically weak anti-smuggling efforts even weaker. Over the past two years, as smuggling networks have thrived, the Department of Homeland Security has shifted money and manpower away from more complex investigations to support the administration’s all-out push to arrest, detain and deport illegal immigrants. Hundreds of agents have been temporarily reassigned to low-level enforcement tasks like checking businesses for undocumented workers or locating foreigners who overstayed their visas. Some investigators’ travel has been curtailed, officials said; others have lost funds to pay informants.
In the first full fiscal year of Trump’s presidency, the number of new human smuggling cases launched by Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, dropped from 3,920 to 1,671, a decline of almost 60 percent. Even more than in the past, the agency has focused its anti-smuggling efforts on low-level “coyotes” caught in the act of sneaking migrants into the country or transporting them inside the United States, current and former officials said. The Human Smuggling Cell, a special intelligence unit set up within ICE to support more ambitious migrant-smuggling efforts, has dwindled to less than half the staff it had in 2016.
Some more far-reaching investigations continue, with intermittent help from intelligence agencies and coordination with foreign governments. But those cases are heavily concentrated on a tiny fraction of illegal immigration from Middle Eastern and South Asian nations where Islamist terrorist groups have a presence. Absent a link to terrorism, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have shown little interest in combating smuggling networks, despite their growing sophistication and links to drug trafficking organizations.
“The emphasis on low-level enforcement is detracting from the mission of going after the smuggling rings,” a former senior HSI official, John Connolly, said in an interview. “It’s like focusing on drug users and small-time dealers instead of the cartels and the drug lords.”
Since the establishment of HSI, its work against migrant smuggling has also had to compete with the disparate other responsibilities the agency inherited from the old U.S. Customs Service — from cybersecurity and child pornography to drug seizures at the border. Current and former HSI officials at all levels of the agency said it has never dedicated adequate resources to investigate the larger and more consequential smuggling networks that operate across Latin America and elsewhere overseas. Those resources, they add, have grown even more scarce under the Trump administration.
Internal figures provided by a former official give an indication of HSI’s priorities. From October 2017 to May 2018, HSI agents dedicated 1.6 million case hours to drug smuggling investigations, 1 million hours to financial crimes like money laundering and 675,000 hours to child exploitation cases, most of which center on pornography. Next came workplace immigration checks, which took up 430,000 hours. Migrant-smuggling cases followed at 356,000 hours. (The list also included gang investigations, identity fraud, human trafficking and half a dozen other crimes.) An ICE spokesman, Brendan Raedy, said he could not confirm those figures but he did not dispute their accuracy.
In a statement, a senior HSI official denied that the agency has undervalued or neglected migrant-smuggling investigations. “Combating human trafficking and smuggling has and will always be one of HSI’s top priorities, and our work is never done,” said the agency’s assistant director for investigative programs, Greg Nevano. “ICE continues to evolve and adapt their investigative and enforcement methodologies to confront emerging threats and trends in the United States.”
In his 2019 budget request, Trump had proposed to cut $542 million from HSI, or about a quarter of the agency’s total budget, and to add nearly $1 billion in funding for the detention and deportation branch of ICE, Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO. Instead, the border security deal approved by Congress last week trimmed HSI’s budget by $236 million from $2.1 billion to $1.9 billion next year and limited the increase in ERO’s budget to $163 million, raising it to $4.2 billion. Still, those parameters will not prevent the DHS leadership from moving some of that funding around to pay for expanded detention and deportation operations as it has in past years, current and former officials said.
Previous administrations have taken aim at the criminal networks that smuggle migrants — and have ended up doing relatively little to combat them. The Obama administration sought with some success to investigate and disrupt the smuggling rings that helped some 60,000 Central American children and teenagers reach the United States during its second term, but that effort petered out after a couple of years. A multi-agency Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, set up by Congress in 2004 to address the lack of attention to the problem, all but collapsed toward the end of Obama’s administration.
But the Trump administration’s policies have deepened a longstanding conflict between the two branches of ICE, with many investigators feeling they are steadily losing resources and influence to the detention side. Last summer, those tensions erupted openly when most of the senior agents in charge of HSI offices around the country asked that their agency be split off from ICE entirely in order to free itself from the albatross of its immigration policies.
“The perception of HSI’s investigative independence is unnecessarily impacted by the political nature of ERO’s civil immigration enforcement,” the agents wrote in a letter to the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. “Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration.” (The administration rejected the agents’ proposal.)
The administration’s most dramatic shift in enforcement activity has come in the criminal prosecution of tens of thousands of people caught illegally crossing the border, an act that was generally dealt with in civil immigration courts during prior administrations. The number of people prosecuted in the federal courts rose from 27,073 in fiscal 2017 to 62,185 in fiscal 2018. (During the previous four years of the Obama administration, the number of illegal-entry cases fell from 53,822 to 35,389, Justice Department figures show, as the migrant flows ebbed and ICE focused on undocumented immigrants who had been accused or convicted of more serious crimes.)
The number of people charged with “bringing in and harboring certain aliens,” the most common migrant-smuggling charge, increased 18 percent, from 3,826 in 2017 to 4,532 in 2018. But that increase may be deceptive: Officials said it was driven in part by an April 2017 Trump administration directive that lowered the recommended threshold for prosecution of smugglers to those who bring in as few as three migrants. In the past, U.S. prosecutors had been instructed to charge only those caught moving at least five or even 10 migrants, although the guidelines varied among federal judicial districts.
Migrant-smuggling networks have long been a hard target for federal authorities. Compared with narcotics traffickers, they are generally smaller and less structured, operating in partnership with one another and with other organized crime groups. Like drug traffickers, they frequently enjoy the protection of corrupt law enforcement officials in their home countries.
Most of the smuggling cases that HSI investigators make follow a familiar pattern: Border Patrol agents capture a group of undocumented immigrants and pass along to their HSI counterparts information about drivers, stash house operators or other low-level figures on the U.S. side. But the investigators have generally struggled to take the cases any further. The prosecution of one south Texas smuggler, Eduardo Rocha Sr., illuminated the difficulties.
When federal agents burst into Rocha’s lonely trailer on a pitch-dark night in May 2014, they came upon a scene that horrified even officers hardened by the violence of the border underworld. Inside, they found a Honduran man moaning on the couch, covered in his own blood. Nearby was a hammer that the smugglers had been using to pound the Honduran’s fingers and a retractable knife with which they had threatened to slash open his belly. Another bloody migrant cowered in a bedroom, clad only in his underwear. A smuggler staggered naked into the hallway, having taken a break from raping a young Salvadoran woman in the back of the dingy, dilapidated trailer strewn with empty beer cans.
“I had heard of cases like this,” said Jonathan Bonds, the HSI agent who led the investigation. “It showed that everything we were being told about the brutality of the smugglers was true.”
Tipped off by a relative in Maryland of the Honduran, who was being extorted by the smuggling crew, the agents rounded up the gang members and then arrested Rocha, a U.S. citizen. Rocha’s crew of drivers, guides and enforcers had moved hundreds of people across the border in the previous two years, charging about $2,500 a head, but also extorting more money by torturing and threatening their clients during phone calls to their relatives in the United States.
Prosecutors and investigators built a strong case against Rocha, using telephone and financial records and statements from the victims. Rocha’s son and another henchman testified that Rocha worked closely with Mexican gangsters in the Zetas drug mafia, which has long controlled smuggling corridors in the area. But while HSI agents were able to gather some detailed information about the Zetas’ role, they could do little to pursue the case south of the border or higher up into the gang’s hierarchy. Rocha steadfastly refused to cooperate with prosecutors and received a life sentence in 2016 after being convicted of conspiring to take hostages.
“He was willing to do life in prison rather than testify against the Zetas,” Bonds said. “We took our case and our evidence as far as we could take it.”
Although the disparity between the White House’s high-profile enforcement campaign and the weakness of the anti-smuggling effort has come into sharper relief under the Trump administration, the disconnect has bipartisan roots, current and former officials said. More than two dozen such officials were interviewed for this story, although some of them requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration stepped up border enforcement measures to reduce its political vulnerability on immigration issues, Mexicans made up the great majority of people entering illegally. Many of those migrants managed to cross on their own through thinly defended urban areas, like those between Tijuana and San Diego, or Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas. Some Mexicans and Central Americans hired local coyotes at the border, and a smaller number of migrants from other nations paid smuggling rings to arrange longer journeys or falsify entry documents.
After the 2001 al-Qaida attacks, the Bush administration began pouring more personnel and resources into border enforcement — deploying high-tech equipment, expanding metal barriers and pushing the migratory traffic away from cities and into desert corridors. The new Department of Homeland Security also began to improve visa security procedures and screening at ports of entry. HSI grew to more than 6,000 agents, becoming the second-largest federal investigative agency after the FBI.
As those defenses multiplied, the volume of illegal crossing declined. Arrests at the southwestern border, which peaked at 1.6 million in 2000 before dropping fairly steadily, have oscillated between about 300,000 and 600,000 over the last decade. But the underground migrant-smuggling industry has boomed over that same period. The Border Patrol estimates that 80 to 95 percent of people crossing the border illegally now hire smugglers. The smugglers’ rates have also escalated, from hundreds of dollars in the 1990s to several thousand dollars just to cross the border now.
In pressing their claim that the country faces a security emergency on its southern border, Trump administration officials have suggested that migrant smugglers and narcotics traffickers are effectively fused in sophisticated “cartels” that are flooding the border with migrants, drugs and crime. “These criminal organizations are destabilizing the Western Hemisphere,” the president’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, told Fox News in an interview on Sunday.
The weakening of the Mexican state and the expansion of organized crime groups over the last two decades have generally strengthened connections between some migrant-smuggling gangs and drug mafias like the Zetas, which routinely “tax” smuggling operations for each migrant they move across the border in areas that the larger organizations control. Some drug traffickers participate directly in migrant smuggling as a secondary enterprise, but other traffickers avoid the less-lucrative migrant business, and some experts believe the links between the traffic of drugs and people have been overstated.
As Mexican immigration has fallen, Central Americans have come to dominate the smugglers’ clientele. Typically, those migrants now pay a succession of different smuggling groups to arrange or escort them at various stages of their trips. A Department of Homeland Security study in 2017 reported that Central Americans and Mexicans were paying as much as $9,200 for the journey, although the fees vary widely depending on the distance traveled and the methods used. (More recently, Central Americans have been paying as much as $15,000, officials said.) Because of heightened border defenses, smugglers have increasingly offered package deals that include repeat attempts if they cannot get their clients across.
Smugglers cross the border in a variety of ways. Many still lead their clients on hikes through remote desert and mountain areas. Less frequently, they provide them with fraudulent documents to cross at ports of entry or even hide them inside secret compartments in cars and trucks. In recent years, a favored tactic has been to coach migrants to surrender to U.S. border authorities and request political asylum, which often gained them temporary residence while cases languish in the overwhelmed immigration court system. Officials said some smuggling organizations track the evolution of U.S. policies, adapting their routes to the enforcement strategies.
Stronger border defenses have also prompted drug mafias and migrant smugglers to intensify their long-standing practice of trying to corrupt U.S. border officials. Although the Customs and Border Protection agency has taken steps to deal with the problem, its expansion has posed new challenges. After Trump ordered the hiring of 15,000 new Border Patrol agents and immigration officers, the DHS Inspector General warned that such surges weaken the screening of new personnel and exacerbate corruption and misconduct.
Technology has also transformed the smuggling industry. Cheap cell phones, internet communications apps and electronic money transfers have allowed Central American parents, for example, to monitor the northward progress of their children or pay the smugglers in installments as they advance. Those same technologies have also made it easier for the smugglers to extort the migrants’ relatives in their home countries and inside the United States.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the HSI agents are often deluged. Border Patrol officers call the agents in when they arrest larger groups of people crossing the border illegally, discover immigrant stash houses or see serious violence by the smugglers. The HSI agents are also generally brought in to look at any significant seizure of illicit drugs, guns or money at the ports of entry, and the HSI agents take on responsibility for following up in criminal investigations that emerge from those cases.
“You don’t get much discretionary time at the border because you spend so much time reacting and responding — to the Border Patrol busting a truckload of aliens, or CBP officers finding dope or guns or money,” said Jerry Robinette, who served as a special agent in charge in San Antonio. “And with all the other cases that the agents develop by following up on those kinds of arrests, you can’t always do a lot of in-depth investigating.”
The immigration-related crimes that draw closer attention from HSI agents are generally those in which migrants are killed, mistreated by smugglers, as in the Rocha case, or caught in large numbers. Cases involving deaths usually produce the most aggressive response from the authorities, such as the life sentence imposed last year on the driver of a truck in which 10 migrants died of heat exposure and asphyxiation in San Antonio.
The most challenging cases tend to be those that extend south of the border, current and former HSI officials said. In those instances, U.S.-based agents have to rely on counterparts in Mexico, Central America and other areas where official corruption is endemic and migrant-smuggling organizations are considered less of a threat than gangs that smuggle narcotics or weapons. Like other federal investigative agencies, HSI maintains a network of attachés abroad, but those officers generally have a very limited capacity to investigate, even when they team with U.S.-trained units of law enforcement agents such as those in Guatemala or Mexico.
“The Mexico-based HSI agents seldom do smuggling,” a veteran investigator said. “They don’t initiate many migrant smuggling cases. They mainly follow leads generated from smuggling cases in the border districts by investigators there.”
HSI officials said they have at times identified powerful bosses of the smuggling networks, as well as corrupt government officials who facilitate their trade in various countries. But large parts of the smuggling networks are increasingly made up of semi-independent contractors who use cellphones and social media apps to pass their clients from one group to another.
“When I look back at our cases, I think alien smuggling presents some of the greatest challenges,” Robinette said. “The smuggling networks in the border regions are a chain of individuals responsible for different aspects: driving, logistics, money, security, stash houses, scouts, on both sides of the border. It has been going on forever and it is harder to identify a boss who is responsible for the entire network.”
Some groups seemingly have more structure and hierarchy. They move hundreds of migrants a week in large tractor-trailers, or operate sprawling networks of stash houses, or obtain false documents from corrupt immigration officials abroad. Yet mapping out an accurate picture of the smuggling infrastructure has always been a major challenge.
“We were constantly frustrated by our inability to determine the extent to which the human smuggling mafias were sophisticated and organized,” said Amy Pope, a former career Justice Department lawyer who worked on border security issues in the Obama White House. “We never got information that gave us a clear path.”
For years, officials have sought better intelligence information on migrant smuggling. In 2004, fearing that terrorists could also slip across the border illegally, the Bush administration worked with Congress to address the issue by creating the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, or HSTC, under the Department of Homeland Security. A primary goal of the center was to mobilize help from the CIA, the Justice Department and the State Department with “human smuggling, human trafficking, and criminal facilitation of clandestine terrorist travel.” The development of better intelligence on the smuggling world was also a key objective.
Yet almost from the start, the initiative failed to live up to its promise. Most of the agencies that were assigned to work on the center never provided the resources, personnel or commitment it needed, current and former officials said. Instead, the center became an outpost of bureaucratic dysfunction known for empty desks and limited activity.
“The problem has been and continues to be that we have never devoted the intelligence capacity necessary to really understand the human smuggling networks in their entirety,” said Alan Bersin, who served as a top border enforcement official in the Obama and Clinton administrations. “We never get a strategic sense of the organizations, of who is doing the smuggling and how it really works. They are pretty decentralized, and it would take work to understand them.”
The Obama administration made modest attempts to revive the HSTC with new leadership. There was also a proposal to move the center to the border in order to give its work greater urgency. Instead, it was stripped of its mission to coordinate intelligence on migrant smuggling and refocused to work only on human trafficking, which involves the movement of migrants for sexual exploitation or forced labor.
“We all concluded that it was a waste of time and resources,” Pope said. “The HSTC was like a stepchild. I would get feedback that it was a place for dumping people the intelligence community and other agencies couldn’t get rid of.”
Although some former officials traced the center’s failure to a lack of interest among senior administration officials, they also emphasized that the U.S. intelligence community has never considered the migrant-smuggling problem to be a priority. “Anytime that DHS would go to the National Security Council and say, ‘This is a big priority and we are going to need you to prioritize intelligence collection and analysis resources for the migrant smuggling and trafficking mission,’ it just never happened,” one senior intelligence official said. “And those requests were made all the time, in all sorts of venues.”
The one notable exception in terms of intelligence community cooperation has been in the investigation of smuggling networks tied to so-called Special Interest Aliens, or SIAs, from countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia that have been categorized as having significant terrorist activity or other security threats.
Over the years, HSI and other agencies have deployed an array of measures overseas to “push out the border” and intercept such migrants as they make their way to the United States. Those strategies have included putting U.S. border inspectors at airports in Mexico and other countries, and enlisting Brazilian immigration officials to identify suspicious travelers. HSI has also distributed hand-held devices to law enforcement agencies in countries from Panama to the Philippines so they can collect biometric data on any migrants whom they detain.
The investigations are typically led by HSI units like the Extraterritorial Criminal Travel Strike Force. When those teams suspect potential links to Islamist extremism, U.S. intelligence agencies and the military have helped track the migrants along smuggling pathways or provided information about corrupt foreign officials who may be involved. One such case was that of a Pakistani smuggler based in Brazil, Sharafat Ali Khan, whose network was dismantled in 2016. The investigators identified some 80 migrants, mostly Pakistanis, who had paid as much as $15,000 to be smuggled across Latin America and into the United States over the previous two years.
But no concrete connection to terrorism was found among any of those migrants, court documents and interviews show. Pursued by the U.S. and Brazilian authorities, Khan was finally arrested in Qatar. A U.S. court sentenced him in 2017 to a mere 31 months in prison. And despite the investigative resources directed at such cases, countries outside Latin America account for only a tiny proportion of illegal immigration at the southwestern U.S. border. About 95 percent of those arrested at the border in 2017 were Central American or Mexican, official figures indicate, followed by small numbers from India, Brazil, Ecuador and other nations.
As tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors began flooding across the southern border in 2014, the Obama administration turned to the intelligence community for insight into the smuggling industry behind the surge. At HSI, officials also created the Human Smuggling Cell, a small intelligence unit that took on some of the multi-agency HSTC’s responsibilities. Piecing together financial information and interviews with border crossers, the cell identified their families in the United States so that agents could warn them not to finance the crossing of other children. The move eventually had some effect in disrupting the surge, some officials said.
A joint operation with the government of Honduras also helped impede the flow of unaccompanied children from that country, Pope said. The Mexican authorities finally blocked immigrants’ access to the freight trains that had for years moved thousands of Central Americans northward across Mexico. But the U.S.-led initiative exposed obstacles that persist today, including deeply entrenched official corruption south of the border and a view among many Latin American officials that migrant smuggling is not a particularly serious crime.
After Trump was elected on a platform that elevated immigration to new prominence, DHS quickly launched a crackdown, rounding up undocumented immigrants at the border and inside the country, deporting thousands more and prosecuting virtually all of those caught entering the country illegally. But those measures have at times undercut the effort to investigate migrant smuggling networks, current and former officials said.
Early in the fall of 2017, the then-director of ICE, Thomas Homan, rattled HSI by ordering that its agents increase their workplace immigration audits by “four or five times.” The directive forced supervisors to pull investigators from other duties in a scramble to check thousands of businesses for undocumented employees, officials said.
“Doing workplace audits is not a sought-after job,” one HSI official said. “The agents don’t want to do those cases. It’s not investigative work.”
In addition, HSI lost $25 million in fiscal 2018 as the Trump administration took $200 million from various agencies for “zero tolerance” initiatives led by ERO. The prior year, $40 million had been pulled from the HSI budget to support detention and deportation activities. During both the Obama and Trump administrations, the loss of HSI funds to detention and deportation has cut into the hiring of investigators, the paying of informants and purchases of weapons and equipment, officials said.
The Human Smuggling Cell, which had grown to as many as 50 people (some of them on temporary assignments), was among the units that lost out to newer priorities. While the cell continues to operate with a focus on rings that smuggle migrants from outside the Western Hemisphere, its staff has fallen to about half its former size, current and former officials said.
“The new administration comes in and starts emphasizing worksite enforcement, in particular, to the exclusion of investigations that took more work, more intelligence,” one former senior HSI official said. Referring to the Human Smuggling Cell, he added, “We keep hearing so much about the smugglers, but it was a great program and it was not supported.”
Away from the border, ERO officers make most immigration arrests. But HSI agents who have been temporarily reassigned to low-level enforcement work under Trump “would ordinarily be doing counterterrorism or smuggling,” said Peter Vincent, a former chief of the agency’s international operations. “They feel that is not only insulting but dangerous because of the missions that are being neglected.”
Investigations of immigrants who overstay their visas are especially cumbersome because of the antiquated technology agents must use. A report by the DHS Inspector General in 2017 found that information about visa overstays was scattered across “dozens of systems, some of which were not were not integrated and did not electronically share information.”
For the 2017 fiscal year, the number of HSI smuggling cases jumped to 3,920 from 2,110 the year before. Several current and former officials attributed that increase to both an unusually high pace of investigative activity, tied to some special operations, and a surge of border-crossers during the last four months of the Obama administration, amid fears of a Trump crackdown on immigration. (More than half of the migrants arrested at the Mexican border that year were caught in those busy months, from October to January, while the overall number of border apprehensions for the fiscal year was substantially lower than in previous years.)
During the 2018 fiscal year, those officials said, HSI anti-smuggling efforts were strongly affected by the change in ICE priorities under Trump. The agency spokesman, Brendan Raedy, attributed the sharp decline in new HSI cases that year, down to 1,671, to agents’ work helping with the increased federal prosecution of smugglers who were arrested the year before.
But several current and former senior homeland security officials disputed that explanation, citing instead the new demands of worksite audits and other enforcement activities and the cuts in resources for their investigations. One senior official also cited the increasing number of migrant families who surrendered at the border and requested asylum, a tactic that agents said makes the smugglers harder to identify.
Inside DHS, some officials held out hope that the president’s declarations of war on the smugglers might eventually lead to a more strategic approach to the fight. But skeptics note that the enforcement campaign has yet to evolve much beyond the push for more arrests, more deportations and a wall at the border.
“The rhetoric is always the same: ‘The smugglers are terrible! What a pernicious underworld it is!’” said Bersin, the former border security official. “But there has never really been the kind of enforcement effort that would make a difference.”