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Border Security

Here’s the Scoop on How Smugglers Exploit Immigration Loopholes

Experts say America's own policies make it easier for cartels to move 'higher-value merchandise'

Women and children seeking passage to the United States are not just a source of revenue for smugglers — they are lucrative decoys, according to the head of the union that represents Border Patrol agents.

Perhaps more valuable than the money smugglers get from “unaccompanied minors” and adults that the federal government calls “family units” is the strategic way smugglers deploy them, said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council.

Judd described the process for LifeZette.

Suppose, he said as a hypothetical, the U.S. Border Patrol has 100 officers on duty in one sector guarding the boundary between between Texas and Mexico.

Those officers might present a worry to smugglers trying to sneak across drugs, foreigners with criminal records, or others from countries with terrorist ties.

So smugglers will send a wave of unaccompanied minors and adults across the border, Judd said. That can occupy half of the Border Patrol officers on duty with processing the carefully timed swarm of illegal immigrants.

“Now, they’ve created gaps … And with those gaps, they now cross higher-value merchandise,” he said.

Judd said smugglers know that children and their parents ultimately will be released; there is no need for subterfuge. Under a 1997 court settlement, the federal government cannot hold illegal immigrant children for longer than 20 days in most cases.

The government places those children with sponsors — usually relatives who often are themselves living illegally in the United States — to await immigration hearings

Related: Illegal Border Crossings Drop for Second Straight Month

Federal authorities also release adults when they are traveling with their children. The Department of Justice attempted to combat that by instructing prosecutors to seek criminal charges for illegal entry. But President Donald Trump reversed that in June amid a furor that arose from the separation of families that the policy required.

So now, Judd said, smugglers have every incentive to send families into the open.

Claude Arnold, a former special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office in Los Angeles, told LifeZette that vulnerabilities caused by U.S. policy are not lost on smugglers or the illegal immigrants who pay them.

“That kind of information spreads like wildfire,” said Arnold, who now is a security consultant.

Nontraditional border crossings on the rise. Statistics indicate it is becoming more common. Of the 317,571 illegal immigrants the Border Patrol has apprehended this fiscal year between official border crossing stations, 37.5 percent have been children or adults traveling with them. That is up from roughly one in 10 prior to 2011.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have known for years that an insecure border poses public safety and terrorism risks. A report this week by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which favors stricter immigration enforcement, revealed that former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson — who served under then-President Barack Obama — wrote a memo in the last year of the administration calling for a multi-agency task force to address the threat posed by so-called special-interest aliens, or SIAs.

Jason Owens, the acting chief Border Patrol agent in Laredo, Texas, said Tuesday on “The Laura Ingraham Show” that it is one aspect of the threat agents see every day.

“We’re not just seeing family units and unaccompanied children. We see people from all over the world,” he said. “There are special-interest aliens from countries that have a known terrorist nexus. We’re seeing hard narcotics that are being smuggled across that pose a threat once they hit the streets of this country.”

In April, after a second straight month in which illegal immigrants caught along the border or deemed “inadmissible” at ports of entry topped 50,000, Trump called out the National Guard to augment the Border Patrol.

Total Department of Defense personnel participating in Operation Guardian Support stood at 2,102 as of last week, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.

By law, guardsmen cannot arrest illegal immigrants. But they can provide surveillance and perform office functions that allow Border Patrol to deploy more of its officers in the field. CBP said Operation Guardian Support has resulted in:

  • the arrest of 13,045 illegal immigrants subject to deportation
  • 4,401 foreigners turned back at the border
  • the seizure of 13,035 pounds of marijuana
  • the seizure of 17 pounds of cocaine
  • the seizure of a half ounce of heroin
  • the seizure of 58 pounds of methamphetamine
  • the seizure of $288 cash

National Guard gets mixed reviews. Experts offer a mixed review of the Guard. Jessica Vaughan, CIS’s director of policy studies, said the Guard represents a force-multiplier that moves Border Patrol officers away from their desks.

“My understanding is that it has been very helpful to the Border Patrol,” she said.

Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said the mere presence of National Guard personnel in military fatigues can serve as a powerful deterrent.

“The fact is that you are often giving the impression of increased manpower on your border,” he said.

Illegal border crossings dipped in June and July. But Arnold, the former ICE supervisor, said the effectiveness of the Guard is difficult to measure.

“It’s hard to predict the effect that has because there are so many other variables … It could be a lot of factors,” he said. “It’s not a panacea. You have to close loopholes in the law which encourage people to come.”

Arnold said that includes not just catch-and-release policies but practices outside the control of Border Patrol officers. He pointed to a relative lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting companies from hiring illegal immigrants. That falls to ICE.

Related: Obama’s DHS Chief Knew Terrorists Likely Exploiting Vulnerable U.S. Borders

Judd, the Border Patrol union chief, said he is a big supporter of having the Guard assist the agency. But he said managers could make better use of the personnel than they have. He said that in some instances, soldiers are performing duties — such as painting lines in parking lots — that Border Patrol officers do not even do.

“It’s been helpful, but the problem is, we have not seen the bang for the buck that we hoped for … It could be more of a help if it was deployed better,” he said.

Although the Guard has had an impact, O’Brien said, “The countermessages coming from the courts is that the border is still open for business; come on across.”