Immigration

Corrupt U.S. Agents Aid Human Smuggling at Border

The news media and policymakers have neglected the complicity of U.S. customs and border agents in the flow of migrants across the border.

Aurora Torres' voice is off-key but audible as she sings "Happy Birthday" to Mike Gilliland, her paramour and partner in a human smuggling operation. Gilliland, a former Marine, was a border and customs officer at a crossing east of San Diego. Torres was a San Diego-based human trafficker. Neither party knew their telephone communications and movements were being recorded by FBI agents investigating allegations of corruption among agents who permitted smugglers like Torres to bring Mexican migrants into the United States in exchange for thousands in bribes.

"Greed and sex are powerful motivations for corruption," said Lowell Bergman, an investigative journalist. The phone recording was part of a documentary on smuggling that Bergman produced, and he played a clip of it during a recent briefing about his reporting on corruption among U.S. border agents at UC Berkeley.

While news media and policymakers have focused on undocumented immigrants from Mexico, the underreported story is the complicity of U.S. customs and border agents in the flow of migrants. "If you clamp down on the borders, as we have done with drugs and people, what does that do to the criminal element?" Bergman said. "Building a fence and wall at the border and putting more border agents down there creates a bigger pool of potential corruption targets."

The build-up of security agents on the border, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, hasn't slowed illegal migration, Bergman said. It's simply made it more sophisticated and organized. Those who would have tried crossing alone are more likely to pay a smuggler to shepherd them across. "If people try to get across the border, they eventually get across," he said. "Part of the fee to the smuggler is the guarantee that they'll get you across. If they fail the first time, they'll try again."

Bergman noted that the U.S. government has no intelligent estimate of the number of people coming through border checkpoints illegally. "The only number they have is apprehensions and [those apprehended] aren't necessarily interviewed on how they got across," he said. But one estimate cited in his documentary states that one in five of those who enter the United States illegally do so through border ports.

Proponents of the militarization of the border have used the threat of terrorist attacks in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 to justify the build-up. But Bergman noted that there is no evidence that terrorists have ever entered through the Mexico-U.S. border. Of all those apprehended at border crossings, there is no record of non-Mexicans. In fact, the smugglers would be the last ones to assist potential terrorists to enter the United States, because it would be bad for business.

Corruption of U.S. border officials has flourished in part, Bergman argued, because there has been no effective internal oversight of border agents since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Multiple agencies, each with some responsibilities for immigration, customs and law enforcement, have meant no coordinated approach to investigations. "They completely lost any idea of what was going on," Bergman said. "Only now are they beginning to find out, and they are overwhelmed by the number of leads and cases to follow up on."

The FBI, which prosecuted Gilliland and Torres, finally realized there was a systemic problem three years ago and acted to establish and staff an office of inspector general to handle corruption cases. The agency now has about 200 open cases of human smuggling involving corrupt border agents. But the agency is swimming against the tide. "People coming through checkpoints," Bergman said, "is still a growth industry."

Annette Fuentes is the editor of "Critica: A Journal of Puerto Rican Policy."
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