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Survey of INS's Anti-Smuggling Units
Report Number I-2001-003
March 2001



Alien smuggling, an activity carried on by criminal organizations worldwide, constitutes a multi-billion dollar illicit business. In recent years, the number of alien smuggling organizations and the sophistication of those organizations has increased dramatically. 1 The United States faces alien smuggling on several fronts. Smuggling occurs in high volumes along the Mexican border and increasingly along the Canadian border. There is increased traffic in maritime smuggling from the Caribbean to south Florida, and large vessels of migrants smuggled from China have arrived on both the west coast and the east coast in recent years. According to a report issued by the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), "INS data indicate that the number of smuggled aliens apprehended attempting to enter the United States increased nearly 80 percent over 2 years, from about 138,000 in fiscal year 1997 to about 247,000 in fiscal year 1999." 2

Newspaper articles nationwide attest to the prevalence of alien smuggling activities. Here are some examples of recent news items:

In a previous inspection report, we stated that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) "intelligence officials told us that some organized smuggling rings are switching from drug smuggling to alien smuggling because the penalties if they get caught with illegal aliens will not be as severe as the penalties would be for drug trafficking." 3 Congress has considered legislation to address this matter. On October 3, 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to amend federal sentencing guidelines for convicted alien smugglers, doubling the minimum term of imprisonment and doubling the minimum fines. The Senate sponsored a similar bill.

"We face a formidable foe in the fight against alien smuggling. This eight-billion-dollar-a-year, global enterprise is run by sophisticated criminal syndicates that are well financed and well equipped."

        --Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service July 3, 2000

Recognizing the increasing volume and sophistication of alien smuggling operations, INS issued a national anti-smuggling strategy in 1997. That strategy was developed by a working group that included representatives from several INS divisions: Border Patrol, Investigations, Intelligence, International Affairs, and Asset Forfeiture. The objective of the anti-smuggling strategy is:

". . . to disrupt the means and methods which facilitate alien smuggling utilizing traditional and non-traditional enforcement efforts. Overseas, sector and district enforcement components have the responsibility to disrupt smuggling organizations in source and transit countries, deter the illegal entry of individuals at the border and at ports of entry, and to identify, investigate and prosecute smuggling organizations domestically and internationally." 4

INS's anti-smuggling strategy involves multiple components-international enforcement and intelligence, border enforcement, and interior enforcement. Anti-smuggling units (ASUs) are integral components in the implementation of the anti-smuggling strategy. There are approximately 35 ASUs nationwide. ASUs exist throughout the continental United States, as well as in Honolulu and San Juan, Puerto Rico. (See the map below.) Some ASUs are located in Border Patrol Sectors and others are part of district office Investigations divisions. The Border Patrol ASUs are located primarily along the southwest border, with additional ASUs in New Orleans and Miami, as well as two on the Canadian border-in Blaine Sector and Swanton Sector. ASUs in the districts have more diverse locations, including the southwest border, the interior, and large cities, such as Chicago and New York, that are often final destinations for smuggled aliens.

ASUs are staffed by criminal investigators (Special Agents) and support staff. The number of agents per ASU varies, ranging from 1 to 29. Nationwide there are approximately 270 ASU agents. In fiscal year (FY) 1999, agents from the ASUs shown on the map below arrested 2,388 smugglers and 28,601 smuggled aliens. 5 (For additional statistics reported by ASUs, see Appendix I.)

It is difficult to obtain an exact count of how many ASUs exist because INS does not have a standard procedure for establishing an ASU, nor a standard definition of what constitutes an ASU. INS uses a program identity code of 1234 to identify "Employees Under the Anti-Smuggling Program." The Smuggling/Criminal Organization (SCO) branch of Investigations, the INS headquarters branch that has oversight of the anti-smuggling program, informally defines an ASU as a location-district office or Border Patrol sector-where 1234 agents are assigned.

That definition applies well to the Border Patrol sectors because 1234 agents in the Border Patrol are all assigned to ASUs and primarily work anti-smuggling cases. However, the same is not true for 1234 agents in the districts. In some districts, these agents do not work exclusively anti-smuggling cases. Besides anti-smuggling, they might, for example, also work immigration fraud or worksite enforcement cases. In addition, some district offices with 1234 agents assign them full time to areas other than anti-smuggling.

Another factor that prevents an accurate count of ASUs is the fact that some district offices are conducting anti-smuggling work even though they do not have any 1234 agents and therefore, technically, do not have ASUs. Yet, they might be included on a list of ASUs in their region.

ASUs report to INS headquarters through INS's regional offices. The regional offices have ASU coordinators that process paperwork from the ASUs and send it to the SCO Branch, which is staffed by a director and four Senior Special Agents. The SCO Branch provides guidance to the field and reviews proposals from ASUs for investigations that require headquarters approval (e.g., investigations employing consensual monitoring) and generally oversees the anti-smuggling program. However, the SCO Branch does not have direct supervisory authority over the ASUs.

INS personnel generally refer to the cases ASUs work as either "reactive" or "proactive." Reactive cases are cases initiated when the ASU gets a call about smuggling activity and then develops the case to forward the pursuit of appropriate prosecutions. One source for a reactive case might be a highway patrol officer who stops a van for a traffic violation and discovers illegal aliens. In such cases, the aliens are often quite far from the point at which they entered the United States (e.g., Mexicans discovered on highways in the Midwest). Another source for a reactive case might be an immigration inspector at a port of entry who intercepts a smuggler bringing in inadmissible aliens. Reactive cases might take about three or four months from the time they are opened to the time the defendants are prosecuted. Sometimes they can take from six months to a year to complete, depending upon court schedules.

Proactive cases are long-term investigations designed to dismantle major smuggling organizations. These cases usually involve complex investigative techniques, such as the use of wiretaps. Some proactive cases are designated-through a formal process-as priority investigations and are funded, in large part, by the SCO Branch. These cases can take from several months to several years to complete, but they usually produce significant numbers of prosecutions.

Operation Forerunner

As a result of a three-week operation that began September 21, 2000, INS officers, working with counterparts in Mexico and five Central American countries, arrested 38 alien smugglers, including the head of a major international smuggling organization. In addition, officers detained 3,500 of the smugglers' clients before they reached the United States. Those clients, who had each paid an average of nearly $4,000 to be smuggled, had been destined to Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and other U.S. cities. They came from 25 countries, with the greatest numbers from Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, and El Salvador.

Inspection Objectives and Methodology

During our preliminary research, we reviewed relevant INS documents and interviewed INS headquarters officials to determine the mission of the anti-smuggling program and the policies that govern it. We analyzed ASU workload data for FY 1996 to FY 1999 to determine outcomes of ASU activities, such as Special Agent hours, number of smugglers arrested, number of smuggled aliens arrested, and number of defendants prosecuted. However, we determined that we would not be able to draw reliable conclusions from this workload data for several reasons, including:

While we were conducting our research, GAO issued a report entitled Alien Smuggling: Management and Operational Improvements Needed to Address Growing Problem. 7 The report identified weaknesses in INS's anti-smuggling program such as: lack of program coordination, absence of an automated case tracking and management system, limited performance measures, and ineffective collection and reporting of intelligence. Based on the report (and knowledge from previous inspections of INS we had conducted), we found GAO's conclusions credible.

We consulted with INS officials and found them also in agreement with GAO's findings and recommendations. Those recommendations, when implemented, will make broad, overall improvements to the anti-smuggling program. But we believed that an OIG inspection of the ASUs was warranted because our inspection could provide INS headquarters managers with significant information that could help them consider the perspective of the ASUs in the field about how to improve the anti-smuggling program.

We knew that candid input from ASU supervisors would be crucial to this inspection, and we determined that the most efficient way to collect such information would be to conduct a survey of the ASU supervisors. Our survey focused on the following areas:

After we drafted the questionnaire, we sought feedback from INS officials and used their input to finalize the survey instrument. We administered the survey by telephone, in June 2000, to the supervisors of 35 ASUs. (See Appendix II.) During the survey, we read a question or statement and asked the supervisor to select a response from the scale provided. (See Appendix III.) We recorded the results and analyzed the data using SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) software. Complete results of the survey appear in Appendix IV.

In September 2000, we visited the Chicago District ASU, the Miami District ASU, the Miami Border Patrol Sector ASU, the San Diego District ASU, and the San Diego Border Patrol Sector ASU. We selected these sites for geographic diversity (sites on the southwest border, a coastal area, and the interior) and inclusion of each INS region. During our site visits, we interviewed ASU supervisors, all available agents at each ASU, as well as high-level district and sector officials at each location. We conducted a total of 60 interviews. The purpose of these interviews was to collect anecdotal evidence to illuminate the results of our survey.

At INS headquarters, we interviewed officials in the Office of Investigations, budget personnel, and officials from the Office of Statistics. We conducted teleconferences with anti-smuggling program officials at each of the three INS regional offices. Because our focus was on the ASUs, we did not talk to anti-smuggling personnel overseas or at the ports of entry, nor did we interview regional directors.

  1. Testimony of [then] Director of INS's Smuggling/Criminal Organizations Branch, before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, March 18, 1999.

  2. Alien Smuggling: Management and Operational Improvements Needed to Address Growing Problem, GAO/GGD-00-103, May 2000, p. 7.

  3. Border Patrol Efforts Along the Northern Border, DOJ/OIG report number I-2000-04, February 2000, p. 7.

  4. INS's Anti-Smuggling Strategy, November 3, 1997, Section I.

  5. INS's G-23 (workload) data, as reported by the ASUs.

  6. INS has three categories of alien smuggling cases. Category I cases involve sophisticated international criminal organizations with the ability to transport more than 250 aliens a month. Category II cases involve labor contractors who transport 100 to 250 aliens a month. Category III cases involve freelance smugglers who smuggle infrequently or non-professionals who smuggle relatives or household employees.

  7. GAO/GGD-00-103, May 2000.