Smuggling of immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A 2007 report of the United Nations declared that human trafficking and smuggling of willing and unwilling persons into the United States and other affluent nations had become one of the largest international crime problems in the world. Only illegal drug trafficking of drugs was known to be a larger criminal business. Human smuggling has been practiced by small bands, organized street gangs, and large well-funded and -equipped crime syndicates. The ability of the U.S. government to combat human smuggling has been impeded by budget cuts, manpower shortages, and the sheer number of possible entry points along the nation’s long coastlines and land borders.

The smuggling of immigrants into the United States has taken two primary forms: human trafficking and human smuggling. Although the two forms have points in common and the terms are not always used consistently, they also have significant differences. Human trafficking may be characterized as preying on impoverished individuals, particularly in countries disturbed by political unrest, famine conditions, warfare, or other problems that magnify economic problems.Smuggling of immigrantsCrime;human traffickingHuman traffickingSlavery;human traffickingSmuggling of immigrantsCrime;human traffickingHuman traffickingSlavery;human trafficking[cat]MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS;Smuggling of immigrants[cat]ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION;Smuggling of immigrants[cat]CRIME;Smuggling ofimmigrants[cat]BORDERS;Smuggling of immigrants

Human Trafficking

Human traffickers lure individuals to emigrate to other nations with promises of good jobs and other inducements. However, after the traffickers convey the individuals to the other nations, they typically hold them hostage in order to exploit them economically. The most common victims whom traffickers bring to the United States are women, who may be made to work as exotic dancers, Prostitution;and alien smuggling[alien smuggling]prostitutes, personal servants, or sweatshop employees in exchange for their travel to the United States. The common goal of the traffickers is to prey on defenseless parties and force them into sexual or labor exploitation into a modern-day form of slavery.

Border Patrol agent inspecting a train for smuggled immigrants at the El Paso, Texas, border crossing in 1938.

(Library of Congress)

Victims of human traffickers generally have few freedoms, and the bulk of the earnings from their employment go to the individuals or groups responsible for bringing them to the country. During the early twenty-first century, worldwide human trafficking was estimated to involve almost 1 million victims a year. However, the U.S. government estimates that fewer than 5 percent of these victims are smuggled into the United States.

Human Smuggling

Human smuggling differs from trafficking in that the people whom professional smugglers illegally convey into other countries are willing immigrants who voluntarily pay the smugglers for their services. Most immigrants who pay to be smuggled into the United States and other nations do so to seek economic opportunities not available in their own nations. Some smuggled immigrants are also motivated by the desire to be reunited with family members and friends who have preceded them.

All parties involved in human smuggling in the United States do so knowingly violating the criminal statutes of the United States. However, the risks of getting caught do not outweigh the potential rewards of succeeding. Smuggled immigrants who are apprehended in the United States are usually simply deported out of the country. In contrast, immigrants who are the involuntary victims of human traffickers are sometimes granted sanctuary in the United States. When smuggled immigrants find economic success in the United States, their experiences often inspire more people in their homelands to attempt to follow their examples.

Smuggling of Immigrants from Mexico

Illegal immigration from Mexico, which shares a long border with the United States, has long been a major problem. Only a fraction of the millions of impoverished Mexicans who have wished to work in the United States have been permitted to entry the country legally, leaving the rest to consider ways of entering illegally. Smuggling has consequently become a popular option. Stopping illegal human crossings and drug smuggling at the border are daily concerns of U.S. Border Patrol, U.S.;responsibilitiesBorder Patrol agents.

Smuggling attempts begin with the groups that prepare to transport immigrants across the border. These groups are sometimes small and unorganized, but most are run much like organized crime elements such as the Italian Mafia. The smugglers are popularly known as "Coyotes"[coyotes]“coyotes” because they prey on immigrants desperate to reach the United States. The means of conveyance they provide are usually not comfortable and may include overland walking and running, river crossings, and carriage in trucks and trains, sometimes within windowless compartments. The trips may take from days to weeks, during which time the travelers may be provided with little food, water, or rest. The goal of the coyotes is to conduct large numbers of eager immigrants as quickly and cheaply as possible. Moreover, it is not uncommon for the coyotes to abuse their charges. Women, and most often adolescent girls, are forced into sexual acts and may be beaten by their male handlers. Those too weak to continue may be left to die.

The Human Toll

Because of the brutal conditions that smuggled immigrants are often forced to endure, injuries and deaths are common. In May of 2009, for example, the Coast Guard, U.S.;and Haitian boat people[Haitian boat people]U.S. Coast Guard rescued twenty-six people, ten of whom died, who were being smuggled by sea from Haiti and the Bahamian immigrantsBahamas. The deadliest smuggling accident on record, however, occurred in Victoria, Texas;human smuggling of immigrantsTexas, in 2003, when nineteen immigrants abandoned inside a sweltering van perished from suffocation. During the early twenty-first century, smuggled immigrants have died because of suffocation, drowning, torture, dehydration, and starvation in New Mexico;smuggling of immigrantsNew Mexico, Arizona;smuggling of immigrantsArizona, Texas, California;smuggling of immigrantsCalifornia, and many port cities along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Apprehension and prosecution of the smugglers responsible for these deaths has been difficult. The Victoria, Texas,case took more than five years to reach a conclusion, when one of the smugglers involved finally pleaded guilty.

Capturing human smugglers in the United States and other nations has been difficult in part because of the complexity of smuggling operations. Generally tightly centralized, the groups use safe houses for transporting immigrants and often change the location of these houses so frequently that law enforcement can never catch up with them. Cellular telephones, Global Positioning Systems, and other technological advances have helped smugglers work more quickly and stealthily.

Smuggling and Trafficking as a World Problem

In 2008, the U.S. Department of State estimated that human smuggling, including trafficking, was a ten-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise. Smuggling is a world problem afflicting every populated region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union during the early 1990’s, many former Soviet bloc nations such as Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, and the Ukrainian immigrantsUkraine became hot spots for human trafficking and smuggling of women and young children. The sometimes willing participants are often tricked into Prostitution;and alien smuggling[alien smuggling]prostitution and sexual exploitation and sold to barbaric handlers upon reaching their destination. Victims find themselves in unfamiliar countries without families, friends, or economic resources. Their problems are compounded by the fact that police agencies in the countries in which they find themselves may be on the take from the traffickers who have brought them there.

European nations, such as Great Britain, have made strides in combatting the smuggling and trafficking of immigrants within their own countries through new legislation, tougher enforcement, and stronger penalties.

Many Asian smuggling and trafficking groups have been known for transporting illegal immigrants by ship and using poorly guarded port cities as places of entry into the United States. The United States has worked closely with the Chinese and Japanese governments to combat the illegal transportation of immigrants on fishing vessels and cargo ships. By the early twenty-first century, other Asian countries were also enforcing stricter penalties for trafficking.

Impact on Crime Rates

Increased human smuggling in the United States has contributed to increases in other criminal activity. For example, immigrants attempting to elude capture have wounded and killed U.S. law-enforcement personnel. Western and southwestern states such as New Mexico, California, and Arizona have also seen increases in drug-related crimes, sexual assaults, robberies, burglaries, and murders in which immigrants have been the perpetrators. In 2004, Phoenix, Arizona, police estimated that an increase in the city’s murder rate was largely a result of violence related to illegal immigration.

In response to increased human smuggling and international projections that the problem would continue to grow, the U.S. Congress passed the [a]Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to improve law enforcement at all levels. Under the new law, local, state, and federal agencies have worked together to combat human trafficking. These efforts have included more routine driver’s license checks, sweeps of businesses to find illegal immigrants, and the increased federal efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants. In addition, border southwestern states have set stronger penalties for illegal immigrants, including lengthy jail and prison terms. They have also provided more manpower to combat illegal smuggling. Creation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2003 as an agency of the new Department of Homeland Security has also helped efforts to combat human smuggling.

Outside the United States, InterpolInterpol, which coordinates the law-enforcement agencies of more than 180 nations, has increased its efforts to combat the problem of smuggling and trafficking. Linking the crime to drugs and terrorist attacks, Interpol has listed human smuggling and trafficking as one of its six priority crime areas. In addition to trafficking and smuggling of humans, this area includes the use of Internet photos and transportation of children for sexual exploitation.Smuggling of immigrantsCrime;human traffickingHuman traffickingSlavery;human trafficking

Further Reading
  • Kyle, David, and Rey Koslowski. Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Examination of illegal immigration and those who profit from it, with attention to why more has not been done to suppress smuggling.
  • McGill, Craig. Human Traffic: Sex, Slaves, and Immigration. London: Vision Paperbacks, 2003. Details the stories of illegal immigrants from four different nations and the struggles the people involved have endured.
  • McMurray, David. In and Out of Morocco: Smuggling and Migration in a Frontier Boomtown. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Exploration of the lax laws for preventing smuggling and trafficking that some small nations, such as Morocco, have.
  • Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2006. Details the Victoria, Texas, tragedy involving the deaths of nineteen smuggled immigrants.
  • Uehling, Greta Lynn. “The International Smuggling of Children: Coyotes, Snakeheads, and the Politics of Compassion.” Anthropological Quarterly 81, no. 4 (2008): 833-871. Examination of the growing problem of children who are illegally smuggled into the United States.

Asian immigrants

Border Patrol, U.S.

Bureau of Immigration, U.S.

Child immigrants


Drug trafficking

Economic consequences of immigration


Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.

Mexican immigrants

Slave trade

Categories: History Content