On June 26, 2019, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs held a hearing called Unprecedented Migration at the U.S. Southern Border: The Exploitation of Migrants through Smuggling, Trafficking, and Involuntary Servitude. One of the witnesses called to testify at the hearing was Gregory Nevano, an Assistant Director at Homeland Security Investigations, which is the principle investigative component of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is charged with enforcing U.S. immigration and customs laws, and combating human smuggling is a core priority. Human smuggling is often accompanied by "collateral" crimes such as document fraud, benefit fraud, illicit financial activity, and human trafficking.
Gregory Nevano commenced his opening statement by explaining the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking: Human smuggling involves providing transportation or fraudulent documents to an individual voluntarily seeking to enter a foreign country illegally. Human trafficking, on the other hand, involves the exploitation of a person through compelled labor or commercial sex acts. This could involve minors, or adults can be victimized by use of force, fraud, or coercion. He then proceeded to make the following observations:
- Often, a venture to the U.S. begins as human smuggling, but quickly turns into human trafficking, when the migrant is compelled to engage in either labor or commercial sex. Human trafficking often occurs after they have reached the interior of the country; a situation which makes it difficult to detect incidents of cross-border trafficking.
- HSI has observed symbiotic relationships between drug cartels and human smuggling enterprises. Some cartel members control the major drug markets and others control the “smuggling flow”. Some human smugglers have to pay taxes and fees to cartels for access to territory they control, and are often subject to violence, extortion, or death if proper compensation isn't rendered. HSI has encountered smuggled aliens that were kidnapped, taken hostage, beaten, sexually assaulted, threatened with murder, or have died as a result of conditions encountered during their passage.
- Drug cartels use migrants to create “human diversions” by organizing them into large groups and dropping them at remote locations in the middle of the night. This forces U.S. Border Patrol officers to abandon their normal coverage in order to rescue these groups. These diversions can cause resources to be stretched to the point that groups of smuggled aliens and shipments of smuggled narcotics and other dangerous contraband are missed by authorities at the border.
- Human smugglers are well versed in our inability to detain family units for the length of time necessary to decide their cases; a situation that exists primarily due to the Flores Settlement Agreement. Following their illegal entry, family units and unaccompanied children are often released with little or no consequences. An unprecedented number of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been arriving at the southwestern border, inundating border authorities and stretching limited DHS resources. By falsely claiming to be a legal family unit they avoid detention and are released after being processed in an expedited fashion.
Nevano then described how ICE has responded to this crisis. Since April 2019, over 400 HSI personnel have been dedicated to combating the problem of fraudulent claims of family relationships. Teams of HSI intelligence analysts, forensic interview specialists, document fraud examiners and special agents have been deployed to the southwestern border. These teams interviewed groups suspected of fraudulently claiming familial relationships to facilitate human smuggling activities. As a result, HSI agents have identified 316 fraudulent family units, 599 fraudulent documents, and have presented 629 individuals for criminal violations, between mid-April and June 21, 2019.