The Deadly Consequences of Illegal Alien Smuggling

By Peter Nunez on June 24, 2003

Testimony prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims

June 24, 2003

Statement of Peter Nunez
Chairman of the Board, Center for Immigration Studies

Thank you for inviting me to testify concerning The Deadly Consequences of Illegal Alien Smuggling. The tragic deaths involving the truck in Victoria, Texas, last month once again demonstrate the deadly consequences arising from the complete failure of our current immigration policy to deal with the chaos along our borders resulting from illegal immigration.

My perspective on this issue is based on my experience over the past thirty years, first as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorneys Office in San Diego, California, from 1972 to 1988, then as the Assistant Secretary for Enforcement at the Treasury Department from 1990 to 1993, and as a person who has lived on the border for most of the past 40 years. I currently serve as a lecturer in the Political Science Department at the University of San Diego, where I teach courses in Transnational Crime and Terrorism, American Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Immigration Policy. Finally, I have been affiliated with a number of immigration reform organizations, and currently serve as the chairman of the board of directors for the Center for Immigration Studies here in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, deaths along the border related to illegal alien smuggling are not a new phenomenon. It was not at all unusual for people to die trying to enter this country along our southern border during the sixteen years I served as a federal prosecutor in San Diego. Deaths due to exposure to the elements, to traffic accidents, and to the inhumane treatment received from smugglers were all too common even during the 70's and 80's. It has always been a matter of the highest priority for both the Border Patrol and the U.S. Attorneys offices along the border to investigate and prosecute cases where a death was involved. And I am aware of the extraordinary efforts that have been made over the past ten years - since the inception of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and Hold the Line in El Paso - by agencies of both the United States and Mexican governments, to warn would-be illegal aliens of the potential dangers they faced in trying to cross the border illegally through the deserts and mountains.

Notwithstanding these efforts, deaths have continued to occur, and will continue as long as we fail to control our borders and as long as we cling to an outdated, failed, and disastrous immigration policy. Because if we try to find the cause of these deaths, and if we are trying to prevent them, then we need look no further then to the unwillingness of the United States to reform its immigration laws in light of the realities of the 21st Century.

Clearly criminal responsibility for these deaths can be laid at the feet of the smugglers who left these poor people to die in the back of a truck. It can also be argued that the illegal aliens themselves are partly responsible for their own deaths, given their willingness to risk harm by entering this country illegally, in violation of our criminal laws. But the illegal aliens who attempt to enter this country by putting their lives at risk, and the smugglers who feed off the desperation of these people, are all reacting to a set of circumstances that act as both push and pull factors in stimulating the flow of immigrants from Mexico and the Third World to the United States. The plain fact is that the huge disparity in economic conditions between Mexico and the United States, as well as the abundant social services available to immigrants once they arrive here, will compel people to attempt the journey even in the face of danger and hardship.

So until Mexico is willing and able to deal with the push factors that force millions of its citizens to seek a better life in the United Sates, and until the United States is willing to deal with the pull factors that lure millions of poor people here from around the world, we should expect that deaths among immigrants will continue to occur. These deaths are not caused by law enforcement or by efforts such as Gatekeeper and Hold the Line; the Border Patrol and the INS have been the scapegoats, told to enforce the law, but not given the resources needed to do the job correctly. What we need to do, at least along the border, is to expand Gatekeeper and Hold the Line to those trouble spots that now represent the biggest threats of illegal entry. Just as the Border Patrol was doubled in size during the early and mid-90's to provide the resources needed in San Diego and El Paso, now we must add however many more Border Patrol agents are needed to close the remaining gaps.

But border control alone will never be enough. What is needed is a comprehensive reform of our immigration policy designed to eliminate all of the perverse incentives that continue to draw illegal aliens to this country. If it is true that most immigrants - both legal and illegal - come to this country to work, then it is essential to finally enact an employer sanctions provision that works. Equally important, however, is the need to reestablish an effective interior enforcement mechanism designed to locate, arrest, and deport the 8 million-plus illegal aliens now living in the United States. For nothing works as a better incentive for illegal aliens than the fact that they know that no one will bother them if they are able to reach the interior of the United States.

Beginning in the late 1980's, INS began retreating from their historical and statutory mandate to locate, arrest, and deport those illegal aliens who managed to evade the Border Patrol or INS inspectors at our ports of entry, and those non-immigrants who originally entered legally but who overstayed their visas. This abdication of the interior enforcement function escalated during the 90's, and has all but disappeared in the current environment. Only the horrors of 9/11 have resulted in any effective interior enforcement, and that is aimed solely at potential terrorists.

In fact, while the latest INS figures show a 75% increase in the deportation of Arabs and Muslims (FY 2002 compared to FY 2001), the same figures show an OVERALL DECREASE of 16% in the total number of deportations. In FY 2002, 28,833 fewer deportations took place than the preceding year; the biggest decline was among Mexicans, the single largest national group, which saw a decline of 32,692 illegal alien Mexicans.

So if you were a poor Mexican living in Mexico, you would know that your chances of being caught crossing the border would be slight, and even if you were caught, nothing bad would happen to you. There would be no prosecution, and no other meaningful sanction to dissuade you from attempting to enter illegally. And you would also know that once you made it past the Border Patrol, you would essentially be home free, that no one would be looking for you after you arrived at your destination in the interior of the United States. And you would know that there would be jobs available for you, even if you might be cheated by your employer, that there would be some level of free medical care for you and your family, free public education for your children, and perhaps even some additional benefits for you and yours, all at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Some states are also offering additional benefits for illegal aliens. To make it easier for you to survive once you are here, some states will allow you to get a genuine government ID card in the form of a drivers license, which you can then use to obtain other indicia of legality that will allow you to burrow deeper into the fabric of America.

And to make sure that you aren't bothered, various state and local governments have adopted policies that prevent state and local police from participating in the effort to locate, arrest, and deport these criminals, or of even cooperating with INS and the Border Patrol.

And in order to help American banks to make a profit, the Treasury Department has authorized financial institutions to accept as valid proof of identity documents such as the matricula consular, which will enable illegal aliens to open bank accounts so they can more conveniently send home to Mexico their share of the roughly $10 Billion in remittances that flows south every year, which, indeed, explains the zeal with which the Mexican government endorses and encourages its citizens to break our laws by sneaking across the border illegally.

And what to make of the various other agencies of the federal government that act in ways to make enforcement of our immigration laws more difficult, that act in ways designed to subvert the responsibilities of those assigned the task of enforcing our immigration laws. We already know about the disconnects that exist(ed?) between the State Department, the FBI, the CIA, and INS prior to 9/11 that prevented INS from even attempting to do its job properly. But what about the more mundane business of the federal government, where the Social Security Administration does nothing about the bogus-on-its-face information it receives from employers demonstrating phony social security account numbers, the failure of IRS and the Labor Department to lift a finger to share information with INS that could be used to identify illegal aliens and lead to their arrest and removal. How many federal governments do we have? Why are not all agencies of the government cooperating to assist INS in performing its duty, all of which makes it infinitely easier for illegal aliens to avoid detection and remain here for decades?

And we need to stop the talk of a coming amnesty, or of a guest worker program, both of which, by themselves, serve to encourage additional illegal immigration. What kind of message are we sending when we dangle that possibility before people desperate enough to put their lives at risk? Doesn't this kind of talk also indicate that we really don't care much about law breaking, that we don't really care that much about the rule of law that these immigration laws exist only as a token objection to the violation of our sovereignty?

And finally, if you are able to avoid detection long enough, your children will be allowed to enter a state college or university and pay in-state tuition, unlike other law-abiding American citizens from out of state who must pay a significantly higher amount.

Soon after 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft quite appropriately suggested that he wanted the state and local law enforcement communities to assist the federal government in locating suspected terrorists, all of whom, almost by definition, are here as immigrants or non-immigrant guests. Somehow, then, we expect state and local law enforcement to be able to distinguish between illegal aliens who might be terrorists and illegal aliens who are only criminals because they broke some other American law. At about the same time, the federal law enforcement agencies began to round up illegal aliens who were from the Middle East or who were Arabs, but not those from anywhere else in the world. Law enforcement also began to locate, arrest, and deport illegal aliens if they worked at airports or other high security locations, but not of they worked in some other sector of the economy. We also became concerned about those illegal aliens that worked at our military bases, such as the U.S. Navy Submarine Base in San Diego, but not those working outside the base. We even arrested and deported those illegal aliens who had the misfortune of working as limo drivers for the NFL Super Bowl held in San Diego this past January. But all other illegal aliens - most of the 8 million-plus who are here - have nothing to fear, because no one cares that they are here, and no one is doing anything about it. If that is not an incentive for illegal immigration, nothing is.

One last point about deaths relating to illegal immigration. We should be as concerned about the deaths (and other violent crimes) caused BY illegal aliens as we are about the deaths of illegal aliens that occur during the course of their own volitional acts of illegally entering this country.

On June 13 of this year, Oceanside Police Department officer Tony Zeppetella, age 27, was gunned down and executed by one Adrian Camacho, described as an Oceanside gang member with a history of violence and drugs. (San Diego Union-Tribune, June 20,2003) What the news article does not report is that the defendant has been convicted on numerous felonies, and has previously been deported as an illegal alien! Too bad the Oceanside Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff's Office were not interested in illegal aliens. Too bad that the INS in San Diego does not have an effective program designed to locate, arrest, and deport illegal aliens. Maybe if they did, Officer Zeppetella's widow and six-month old child would not be suffering today over their loss.

Or take the recent case from Northern California involving the kidnapping (and who knows what else) of a 9-year-old girl, who, thankfully, survived her ordeal. Her kidnapper? Another illegal alien, who was able to hide in plain sight, due in part to the policy of the San Jose Police Department to look the other way with regard to immigration violators. And of course the INS has no program to fulfill its statutory duty to locate, arrest, and deport illegal aliens.

So as we mourn the deaths of those who voluntarily decided to break our criminal law by entering this country illegally, let's also save a little compassion for those who become the victims of illegal aliens, with the full complicity of the federal government and state and local law enforcement agencies that have decided to look the other way.

The bottom line is that this Congress has to end the chaos of our past and present immigration policy, and put in place serious reform efforts that will enhance the ability of the new INS to do its job. We must, as a country, stop sending a mixed message to the downtrodden of the world that we will leave you alone if you have the courage and the ingenuity to make it past our borders. The federal government must use all of its resources to attack this problem comprehensively. The state and local governments must be brought into the effort, and any and all incentives dangled by state and local governments must be ended. Only by turning off the magnets that provoke this lawlessness can we ever stop the chaos at the borders that results, unfortunately, in the loss of life.