The Department of Homeland Security will lead a multiagency crackdown on the international criminal organizations engaged in smuggling migrants to the United States, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday.
The effort, Operation Sentinel, will target all assets and individuals in the United States and abroad, DHS said, by revoking travel documents, freezing U.S. bank accounts and other financial assets, and blocking commercial entities involved in the smuggling trade.
“With the help of our federal and foreign partners, we aim to cut off access to that profit by denying these criminals the ability to engage in travel, trade, and finance in the United States,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “We intend to disrupt every facet of the logistical network that these organizations use to succeed.”
The Biden administration launched the operation this week by revoking the visas of 130 foreign nationals with suspected ties to smuggling organizations, according to CBP officials who provided additional information but were not authorized to discuss the enforcement actions. Most of the visa holders were from Mexico, officials said.
Last month more than 172,000 migrants were taken into custody along the Mexico border, the highest total in nearly 20 years, including record numbers of teenagers and children who typically reach the United States in the hands of smugglers.
Often the smugglers are hired by a parent or family member seeking to reunite in the United States. DHS officials did not indicate whether the operation would target those individuals, nor did officials say what criminal penalties or prosecution efforts could be involved.
DHS said the anti-smuggling effort will involve U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Department of State, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Smuggling operations continue to lie and exploit vulnerable populations to promote their criminal enterprise — the health and safety of migrants does not influence their lucrative ambition,” said Troy Miller, the acting top official at CBP.
Mayorkas, Miller and other senior officials cited recent incidents along the border in which traffickers dropped children over the border wall and left others wandering alone in search of U.S. agents. In other cases, smugglers abandon migrants in the desert when they cannot keep pace.
The Border Patrol located the remains of 250 migrants during the 2020 fiscal year, DHS noted, and more than 300 in 2019.
The smugglers often seen ferrying migrants across the Rio Grande in inflatable rafts are low-level, often Mexican teenagers who are employed because they are rarely prosecuted. While powerful drug cartels and other sophisticated groups often profit from migration by charging fees to smugglers passing through their territory, it can be challenging for authorities to demonstrate their direct role.
Mayorkas and the other DHS officials who brief reporters said the Biden administration will work with Mexico and Central American nations to target the criminal groups, but they offered few details about how those international operations will work. Investigators will look to intensify scrutiny of payments to businesses and entities in Mexico and Central America from individuals based in the United States, and then prepare enforcement measures against the recipients, officials said.