DHS Could Better Address Alien Smuggling along the Southwest Border by Leveraging Investigative Resources and Measuring Program Performance
GAO-10-919T: Published: Jul 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 22, 2010.
This testimony discusses federal efforts to address alien smuggling along the southwest border. Alien smuggling along the southwest border is an increasing threat to the security of the United States and Mexico as well as to the safety of both law enforcement and smuggled aliens. One reason for this increased threat is the involvement of drug trafficking organizations in alien smuggling. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center's (NDIC) 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment, the southwest border region is the principal entry point for smuggled aliens from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Aliens from countries of special interest to the United States such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan (known as special-interest aliens) also illegally enter the United States through the region. According to the NDIC assessment, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have become increasingly involved in alien smuggling. These organizations collect fees from alien smuggling organizations for the use of specific smuggling routes, and available reporting indicates that some Mexican drug trafficking organizations specialize in smuggling special-interest aliens into the United States. As a result, these organizations now have alien smuggling as an additional source of funding to counter U.S. and Mexican government law enforcement efforts against them. Violence associated with alien smuggling has also increased in recent years, particularly in Arizona. According to the NDIC assessment, expanding border security initiatives and additional U.S. Border Patrol resources are likely obstructing regularly used smuggling routes and fueling this increase in violence, particularly violence directed at law enforcement officers. Alien smugglers and guides are more likely than in past years to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officers in order to smuggle groups of aliens across the southwest border. In July 2009, a border patrol agent was killed while patrolling the border by aliens illegally crossing the border, the first shooting death of an agent in more than 10 years. Conflicts are also emerging among rival alien smuggling organizations. Assaults, kidnappings, and hostage situations attributed to this conflict are increasing, particularly in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. Communities across the country are at risk since among those individuals illegally crossing the border are criminal aliens and gang members who pose public safety concerns for communities throughout the country. Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations (OI) is responsible for investigating alien smuggling. In addition, DHS's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE's Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) have alien smuggling-related programs. This testimony is based on a May 2010 report we are releasing publicly today on alien smuggling along the southwest border. As requested, like the report, this testimony will discuss the following key issues: (1) the amount of investigative effort OI has devoted to alien smuggling along the southwest border since fiscal year 2005 and an opportunity for ICE to use its investigative resources more effectively; (2) DHS progress in seizing assets related to alien smuggling since fiscal year 2005 and financial investigative techniques that could be applied along the southwest border to target and seize the monetary assets of smuggling organizations; and (3) the extent to which ICE/OI and CBP measure progress toward achieving alien smuggling-related program objectives. Our May 2010 report also provides a discussion of the extent to which ICE/OI and CBP have program objectives related to alien smuggling.
We found the following: (1) OI work years devoted to investigating alien smuggling along the southwest border increased from about 190 work years in fiscal year 2005 to about 197 work years in fiscal year 2009, an overall increase of 4 percent, with hundreds of arrests, indictments, and convictions resulting. The overall number of work years decreased from about 190 work years in fiscal year 2005 to 174 in fiscal year 2008, but increased 23 work years from fiscal years 2008 to 2009 primarily due to an increase in one office. The percentage of time OI investigators spend on alien smuggling investigations, versus other investigative areas, such as drugs, has remained steady during this time period at 16-17 percent. (2) The value of OI alien smuggling asset seizures has decreased since fiscal year 2005, and two promising opportunities exist that could be applied to target and seize the monetary assets of smuggling organizations. According to OI data, the value of alien smuggling seizures nationwide increased from about $11.2 million in fiscal year 2005 to about $17.4 million in fiscal year 2007, but declined to $12.1 million in fiscal year 2008 and to about $7.6 million in fiscal year 2009. (3) OI and CBP have not fully evaluated progress toward achieving alien smuggling-related program objectives. Federal standards for internal control call for agencies to establish performance measures and indicators in order to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts. One of the major objectives of OI's alien smuggling investigations is to seize smugglers' assets, but OI does not have performance measures for asset seizures related to alien smuggling cases. Tracking the use of asset seizures in alien smuggling investigations as a performance measure could help OI monitor its progress toward its goal of denying smuggling organizations the profit from criminal acts. Thus, in our May 2010 report, we recommended that ICE develop performance measures for asset seizures related to alien smuggling investigations. ICE concurred with the recommendation and stated that ICE is in the process of assessing all of its performance measures and creating a performance plan.