How Smugglers and High-Risk Travelers Enter the US

National Security
How Smugglers and High Risk Travelers Enter the United States

​It’s no secret that transnational crime organizations get creative when it comes to smuggling contraband from Mexico to the United States, but with increased security along the border comes increasingly extravagant efforts by criminals to avoid security measures, a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released earlier this week found. 

Smugglers build cross-border tunnels, which range from rudimentary, shallow tunnels to interconnected tunnels with lighting, railways, and ventilation and connect to existing municipal infrastructure such as sewer systems. Single seat, ultralight aircraft weighing 250 pounds or less can carry large baskets of drugs across the border. And a variety of boats, pangas, and submarines can shuttle large quantities of contraband. 

In its report, titled Border Security: Additional Actions Could Strengthen DHS Efforts to Address Subterranean, Aerial, and Maritime Smuggling, GAO discovered 67 cross-border tunnels, 54 of which were sophisticated and interconnected. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) share responsibility for countering tunnel threats and found that the drug most confiscated in the tunnels was marijuana—from 2011 to 2016, more than 106,600 pounds of marijuana was seized, the report found. Smuggling rates via tunnels, air, and boats have generally decreased since 2011, although GAO found an increase in migrant smuggling via panga and recreational boats off the Florida coast.

The GAO report concluded that CBP and ICE should increase their use of technology, performance measuring, and agency collaboration to better address the smuggling threat. “By establishing performance measures and regularly monitoring performance against targets, managers could obtain valuable information on successful approaches and areas that could be improved to help ensure that both technology investments and operational responses to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective,” according to the report.

But what about identifying high-risk travelers that could pose a threat to the United States? DHS has a number of programs in place to identify and interdict high-risk travelers seeking to arrive in the United States via airplane, such as foreign fighters and potential terrorists, human traffickers, and drug smugglers. CBP identified and prohibited more than 22,000 travelers from flying to the United States in 2015 alone, but there is no way to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the high-risk traveler programs, GAO found in its report Progress and Challenges in DHS's Efforts to Address High-Risk Travelers and Strengthen Visa Security, released yesterday.

The report also addressed the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows nationals from 38 countries to apply for a temporary visa to travel to the United States. The VWP has been around since 1986, but was updated in 2015 to address the modern-day terrorist threat. ​As part of the agreement, countries participating in the U.S. VWP agreed to share information regarding lost or stolen passports, identity information about known or suspected terrorists, and criminal history information. 

However, GAO found that a third of the countries are not sharing terrorist identity information, which the report noted “has enhanced U.S. traveler screening capabilities and improved U.S. agencies’ ability to prevent known and suspected terrorists from traveling to the United States.” DHS has agreed to continue to work with VWP companies to implement all program requirements.