US tries spy tactics to stop human smugglers

They've come a long way from the mom-and-pop scofflaws who would guide immigrants across the Rio Grande for a hundred bucks and the thrill of it. These days, smugglers have infrared scopes, two-way radios, and computer databases to keep track of each immigrant, how much they have paid, and where they are supposed to go.

It is this new breed of smuggler - call them "Coyote 2.0" - that has forced the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to make monumental changes in its border strategy. Now, after a decade or so of building up personnel and equipment in military-style "operations," the INS is breaking out the wiretaps, sending in the undercover agents, and opting for a little cloak and dagger.

If it works, the INS's pumped-up efforts in targeting smugglers will likely be hailed as a cost-efficient and humane solution to America's immigration problems. If it fails, the strategy is likely to invite calls for a complete change in the country's goals and policies.

"What it tells me is that the Border Patrol and these INS operations are only a part of what needs to be a broad strategy on immigration," says Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "More agents on the border and even individual operations are insufficient, but they happen to be politically easy things to do."

The change in approach was announced earlier this month by Doris Meissner, INS commissioner, during a visit to southern Arizona, where Border Patrol agents are catching more than 60,000 illegal immigrants a month. Referring to Operations Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas, Gatekeeper in San Diego, and Rio Grande in south Texas, Ms. Meissner said, overall, INS policies were "working," but acknowledged the INS had underestimated how many immigrants would risk their lives in Arizona deserts.

In some ways, the local Border Patrol has already begun taking steps to target smugglers. Tucson, Ariz., sector chief David Aguilar has begun working closely with local law enforcement, and even the state health department, to coordinate efforts to shut down the "drop houses," where dozens of immigrants cram into small rooms, waiting for their rides up north. In addition, Meissner says, plainclothes agents will now patrol the airports in Phoenix and Las Vegas, two major hubs for immigrant smuggling.

But targeting smugglers will go far beyond all that, officials say. The INS has received two important powers in the past few years: In 1997, Congress authorized the INS to tap phone conversations and e-mail, and just this month, Congress gave the INS the power to seize the assets of accused smugglers. With these new tools, the INS will likely resemble a hybrid of the anti-Mafia techniques of the FBI and the drug-war policies of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Consider Operation Seek and Keep, a year-long 1998 sting operation that dismantled a $200 million smuggling ring based in Dallas. Led by alleged ringleader Nick Diaz, aka Nitin Shettie, the group is believed to have smuggled as many as 12,000 Indian nationals and other foreigners through Russia and Cuba to transit sites in Ecuador, the Bahamas, and Mexico. Some immigrants paid as much as $20,000 apiece to be smuggled from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and India, to safe houses in 38 states of the US. The case is still pending.

Mike McMahon, head of an INS investigation unit in Houston, predicts that the INS will break up more smuggling networks, particularly in hubs like Houston and Phoenix, where smugglers tend to transport and hold immigrants in "safe houses." By identifying large flows of money and recurring calls to certain host countries, Mr. McMahon says his unit is close to breaking a case that could be just as large as "Seek and Keep."

The irony, says McMahon, is that INS success in shutting down illegal entry points in major urban areas, such as south Texas, El Paso, and San Diego, has forced smugglers to cooperate with one another, and form sophisticated networks capable of delivering immigrants from multiple countries to virtually any destination in the US. "Operation Rio Grande, as we added large numbers of Border Patrol agents, made the smugglers work together and create new schemes to get these people into the country," says McMahon. "It's organized crime. They've become much more sophisticated, and so are our efforts over the last several years."

The INS's new approach is drawing plaudits from both immigrants-rights groups and advocates for stricter immigration laws. "It makes sense to go after the problem in the interior of the state instead of just at the border," says Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona. While he and other critics of the administration's border policies consider this step a long time in coming, he notes, "I'm just glad they're doing what they're doing."

For Judy Mark, spokeswoman for the Washington-based immigrant-rights group National Immigration Forum, focusing on smuggling networks could help reduce the number of border deaths - more than 280 since last October. "It makes the most sense economically and from a human rights perspective to focus on the individuals who are not only flagrantly breaking the law, but also abusing immigrants at the same time," she says.

But pro-business and civil-liberties groups argue that nothing will solve the American immigration problem, as long as immigrants can earn more money in the US than they can back home.

"The problem with illegal immigration is not the immigration; it's that it's illegal," says Dan Griswold, associate director of the Center for Trade Policies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. Noting the INS's new strategy, he sighs. "It's just another example of government trying to stop people from doing something that is natural, to better their conditions."

But the limit of US abilities to control the flow of immigrants will depend on political will, and Mr. Krikorian says neither the Congress nor the White House have shown a great deal of that. For example, a few years ago, INS agents cracked down on undocumented Mexican laborers harvesting Vidalia onions in Georgia. Farmers and immigrant-rights groups protested to congressmen, who called on the White House to stop targeting farm labor in the interior of the US. Similar protests arose when the INS raided meat-processing plants in Nebraska under Operation Vanguard.

"Congress has made it quite clear that the INS is not to enforce the law that Congress itself passed," says Krikorian. "But if you're not going to round up illegal aliens where they are working, where are you going to find them?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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