Between 2009 and 2014, More Than 18,000 Individuals Charged With Human Smuggling by Federal Prosecutors
The Justice Department is committed to using its resources to bring to justice those that are breaking the law by smuggling migrants into the United States. In Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14, Oct. 1, 2013, up to Sept. 30, 2014), the Justice Department filed criminal charges against 2,762 individuals for human smuggling or harboring immigrants. Nearly 90 percent of the criminal charges filed in FY14 for smuggling took place in Texas (1,515), California (511), Arizona (394), Florida (75) and New York (31). The announcement of these actions is just one part of ongoing, collaborative efforts to tackle unlawful migration. These efforts also helped to address last year’s influx of Central American migrants, including unaccompanied children and families crossing into the Rio Grande Valley, and demonstrate a continued commitment to dismantling human smuggling operations that put so many lives at risk.
Individuals that facilitate smuggling acts need to be aware that they face criminal prosecution and fines. They also need to be aware of the dangers faced by the individuals that are being smuggled and also that the Department of Justice will seek forfeiture of funds transferred to others in connection with a smuggling crime. In addition, individuals trying to bring a family member to the United States by transferring funds to a coyote should be aware that those acts are against the law and their funds can be seized by the federal government.
The penalty for human smuggling if done for commercial benefit is up to 10 years in prison and an accompanying fine. For example, in January, Ruth Fernandez Morales-Lopez pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Hilda G. Tagle of the Southern District of Texas to bringing in and harboring aliens and money laundering. Morales-Lopez admitted that she was the person who decided, based on whether they paid their smuggling fees, which individuals could stay at the “stash house,” located in San Benito, Texas. She further admitted that more than $1 million in her bank account was comprised of smuggling fees and that she structured her withdrawals from that account to circumvent the Bank Secrecy Act. Morales-Lopez faces up to 10 years in federal prison for the smuggling charge and up to 20 years for money laundering. The remaining five defendants in the case, all of whom pleaded guilty, each face up to 10 years of federal imprisonment.
Many of the stories revealed in court cases outline the severe examples of exploitation and violence against migrants. For example, in April 2014, a federal jury in Del Rio, Texas, convicted Eduardo Rocha Sr., 44, for his role in a human smuggling ring operation in Carrizo Springs, Texas, known for torturing its victims and exploiting their families. The evidence presented during the trial showed that Rocha Sr. extorted additional money from family members of migrants that already lived in the United States. In some instances, he ordered his accomplices to subject migrants to brutal violence and mutilation while their family members were forced to listen over the phone.
The Justice Department has a long history of working with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal partners to investigate and prosecute human smugglers. These collaborative efforts lead to prosecutions of those responsible for the illegal entry of individuals, including unaccompanied minors. The string of human smuggling convictions on the southwest border emphasizes the federal law enforcement resources being brought to bear to dismantle and disrupt these dangerous, criminal operations. Human smuggling acts can also lead to extremely dangerous circumstances that pose a public safety threat and significant humanitarian concerns. Many of the cases prosecuted by U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country involve migrants who have been kidnapped, taken hostage, beaten, sexually assaulted, threatened or who have actually died as a result of living under some of the most perilous conditions.
Tragic stories have become all too familiar along the southwest border. In October 2014, for example, Carlos Hernandez-Palma and Fernando Armenta-Romero were apprehended and sentenced for their role in the death of an undocumented immigrant woman that they abandoned in the wilderness of Otay Mountain near the San Diego border. Court records revealed that the woman’s husband pleaded with the smugglers, to no avail, to call for assistance for his pregnant wife after she became gravely ill during the venture. It would be several days before the U.S. Border Patrol found his wife’s body. Her cause of death was attributed to hyperglycemia from being diabetic and hypothermia from environmental exposure.
In addition, the Justice Department is working with countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico to identify and prosecute smugglers who are aiding unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border. The coordinated efforts also target facilitators operating in foreign countries.
These ongoing enforcement efforts started before last year’s surge of unaccompanied minors and the Justice Department will continue to be vigilant in bringing smugglers to justice. In the years 2009 to 2014, the Justice Department charged more than 18,000 defendants with smuggling or harboring immigrants.