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Dangers of human smuggling and Biden’s border policy

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We hear a lot about human trafficking and the unprecedented number of illegal crossings that have occurred during Biden’s presidency, but we haven’t heard much about the smugglers who bring migrants to the United States and help them to make illegal crossings.

Although they may seem to be similar crimes, migrant smuggling and human trafficking are very different.

Migrant smugglers are paid by the migrants to assist them in traveling to the United States and with making an illegal entry. Human traffickers exploit migrants by selling them to people who want to use them for such things as prostitution, forced labor, a form of slavery, or to remove and sell their organs.

No one has comprehensive data on the prevalence of migrant smuggling globally or into the United States, but the information that is available indicates that it is a serious problem.

The first — and to date, only — study on the prevalence of migrant smuggling was performed in 2018, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). UNODC studied 30 major smuggling routes and concluded that at least 2.5 million migrants were smuggled in 2016, for an economic return of between $5.5 billion and $7 billion.

ICE also has found that transnational criminal organizations are making billions of dollars from their smuggling operations.

Transnational criminal organizations

Interpol says that migrant smuggling organizations are run like businesses, drawn by the high profit margins and the relatively low risk of arrest and prosecution. 

Interpol has seen an increase in the activities of transnational smuggling networks.

And migrant smuggling has become more sophisticated. While some migrants and smugglers make contact face-to-face, most of the smuggling process now is carried out online. Transnational criminal organizations use the internet or dark web to recruit, communicate, and advertise their services. And they use it to gather real-time information on their smuggling routes.

Administration’s efforts to deal with migrant smuggling

On April 27, 2021, the DHS secretary announced the establishment of “Operation Sentinel,” a new counter-network targeting operation run by DHS, the State Department and the Justice Department that is focused on transnational migrant smuggling organizations. The secretary claimed that these organizations put profit over human life, with devastating consequences.

On June 7, 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the establishment of “Joint Task Force Alpha,” a law enforcement task force that combines the resources of the Department of Justice and DHS to enhance enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries.

The administration’s operations may be too narrowly focused 

Biden should do as much as he can to stop the large transnational criminal organizations, but he also should do what he can to stop the small smuggling operations.

According to the UNODC, most smuggling networks are loosely connected, based on fluid contacts. Well-organized smuggling organizations are not needed to smuggle migrants over short distances and across single borders.

Also, why is the Joint Task Force limited to the Northern Triangle counties and Mexico? Smugglers are bringing migrants from other parts of the world too. The number of illegal crossers from other countries has more than tripled from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2019, increasing from 37,000 per fiscal year to 118,000.

The number of encounters involving people from Ecuador increased more than eightfold, from 11,861 in fiscal 2020 to 95,692 in fiscal 2021. Encounters involving people from Brazil (from 6,946 to 56,735), Nicaragua (from 2,123 to 49,841), Venezuela (from 1,227 to 47,752), Haiti (from 4,395 to 45,532) and Cuba (from 9,822 to 38,139) also increased.


An ICE spokesman has said that transnational smuggling organizations have no concern for the migrants they smuggle. They look at the migrants as merchandise, as a way to make money.

Most of the migrants being smuggled are adult males. In recent years, however, the number of women, children and family units being smuggled has increased dramatically. They often find themselves at risk for assault and abuse such as rape, beatings, kidnapping and robbery. And all of the smuggled migrants face the risk of being crammed into windowless storage spaces or forced to sit still in urine, seawater, fuel, feces, or vomit, and of being deprived of food and water.

Large smuggling operations are abandoning migrants in dangerous situations at an alarming rate. In fiscal 2021, the border patrol rescued 12,877 migrants in the southwest border regions, compared to around 5,000 in previous years. Last week, the border patrol rescued 25 undocumented migrants who had been left in a locked trailer with no way to escape.


So much money is involved and the likelihood of being prosecuted is so low that I would expect new transnational smuggling organizations to pop up and take the place of the ones that are taken down.

It might be more effective to shift the focus to reducing the need for their services, which could be accomplished by reducing the attraction of practices that make taking the dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers worth the risks.

For instance —

Find a way to restrict the processing of asylum applications to locations outside of the United States, like the United Kingdom’s plan to send migrants to a third country to have their asylum claims processed.

End catch and release.

Eliminate the immigration enforcement guidelines that protect illegal crossers from being arrested once they have reached the interior of the country.

And enforce the employer sanctions that discourage employers from hiring migrants who are not authorized to work in the United States.

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow his blog at

Tags Biden immigration policy border policy catch and release Coyote Crime human smuggling Human trafficking Illegal entry Illegal immigration Merrick Garland Organized crime

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