What is alien smuggling?

Alien smuggling is a serious problem along the southern border of the United States. Especially in border towns like Del Rio, Eagle Pass, El Paso, and Laredo. It happens when smugglers bring people without documents into the United States.

As a result, Congress passed a law that covers a wide range of conduct. They made it a crime to intentionally:

  1. Bring aliens with no legal status into the country;
  2. Transport aliens with no legal status within the country;
  3. Harbor or hide aliens within the country;
  4. Encourage aliens with no papers to enter the country;
  5. Conspire with other smugglers to commit these crimes; and
  6. Aid or abet others to commit these crimes.

In other words, there are different ways to smuggle aliens. Together, these crimes form the alien-smuggling statute. But to see how this law works, we need some background information.

How does this crime happen?

Alien smuggling is often a joint venture. Many smugglers in Mexico work together to cross aliens into the country. From there, smugglers on this side of the border help aliens avoid border patrol checkpoints. And they also help move the aliens from the border into bigger cities like San Antonio, Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

Along the way, each smuggler plays a different role in the crime. This creates an interesting problem. Many low-level smugglers do not know each other. In fact, most smugglers never meet each other. They communicate by cell phone or text message.

This is intentional. This also creates the potential for not only injustice, but also opportunity. If a smuggler is caught, then he will not have much information to give police. This means the smuggler will serve jail time while the other smugglers go free.

In contrast, most smugglers do not know the aliens. And the smugglers and aliens only meet for brief periods of time. Also, in many cases, there is no digital evidence connecting the smugglers to the aliens. This makes it difficult for aliens to identify smugglers in court.

This creates a strong defense option. Especially in conspiracy cases. One issue required in smuggling cases is criminal intent. The government must show the smuggler intended to smuggle aliens. Or that he entered into an agreement to smuggle aliens. In these situations, the defense should review the strength of the criminal-intent evidence. It could lay the groundwork for a not guilty verdict.

What are examples of alien smuggling?

Below are examples of alien-smuggling:

  1. Foot guides: Foot guides lead aliens through the brush to avoid border patrol checkpoints;
  2. Stash-house operators: Smugglers use stash houses to hold people during the journey; and
  3. Drivers: Drivers secretly move aliens in their cars, trucks, or semis.

These are just a few examples of alien smuggling.

Notably, each smuggler plays a different role in the joint venture. But they all work together to achieve the same goal. Consequently, prosecutors can charge smugglers with more than one crime. For instance, prosecutors can charge a smuggler with transporting aliens and conspiracy to transport aliens.

What are the penalties for alien smuggling?

The table below lists the top penalties for alien smuggling. Of major interest, these penalties increase for three reasons. First, if the smuggler was paid to smuggle, then the max goes from 5 years to 10 years. Second, if anyone was seriously hurt, then the max is 20 years. Finally, if anyone died during the crime, then the max is either the death penalty or life in jail.

However, it is important to note one thing. These penalties only represent the outer limits of possible jail time. Stated another way, the max penalties only tell us the worst that can happen.

In most cases, smugglers do not get max sentences. For the vast majority of smuggling cases, smugglers get guideline sentences. These sentences are often well below the max penalties for smuggling.

Penalties for Alien Smuggling

STATUTEDESCRIPTIONMAX PENALTYFINESPECIAL ASSESSMENT
8 USC § 1324(B)(ii)Transporting, harboring, concealing, or encouraging aliens to enter into the United States without financial gain.

Also includes aiding and abetting the commission of these acts.
Up to 5 years in prison.Up to a $250,000.00.$5,000.00 special assessment possible under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.
8 USC § 1324(B)(i)Transporting, harboring, or encouraging aliens to enter the United States for financial gain.Up to 10 years in prison.Up to a $250,000.00.$5,000.00 special assessment possible under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.
8 USC § 1324(B)(iii)The defendant causes another person serious bodily injury or places another person’s life in jeopardy.Up to 20 years in prison.Up to a $250,000.00.$5,000.00 special assessment possible under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.
8 USC § 1324(B)(iv)The crime results in the death of any person.Death penalty or life in prison possible.Up to a $250,000.00.$5,000.00 special assessment possible under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.
The table lists the maximum penalties for alien smuggling. Notably, the table contains three aggravating factors that increase the range of punishment. They are financial gain, serious bodily injury, and death. If any of these factors are present, then the penalty range will increase for alien smuggling.

What are the alien-smuggling guidelines?

The sentencing guidelines are the starting point for all federal sentences. This requires the probation department to prepare a report for every defendant. The report tells the client how much jail time he is looking at.

Furthermore, the guidelines for alien smuggling are in USSG § 2L1.1. The base-offense level for alien smuggling is 12. But the level increases if certain facts are present. For example, the base offense level increases if:

  • The number of aliens smuggled is between 6 and 24. The level increases by 3 points;
  • The number of aliens smuggled is between 25 and 99. The level increases by 6 points; and
  • If the defendant smuggled more than 100 aliens, then the level increases by 9 points.

The guidelines contain more bumps and increases. To illustrate, the guideline range will go up if the smuggler used a gun. Or, if the smuggler transported an unescorted minor. The guideline range may also increase if the smuggler has prior criminal history. In sum, the guidelines will depend on the facts of each case.

Therefore, it is helpful to review the guidelines before a defendant decides to either plead guilty or go to trial. This helps for two reasons. First, it protects clients from unwanted surprises. By getting an estimate of the guidelines upfront, the client will know what he or she is signing up for.

Second, reviewing the guidelines helps clients gauge the risk of going to trial. In some cases, there is not a big difference in jail time between pleading guilty and going to trial. In these situations, clients sometimes go to trial because the reward outweighs the risk.

But this is a personal choice. And the lawyer’s job is to help the client make the best decision in the case.

San Antonio Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

Alien smuggling is a serious crime. That’s why judges frequently send smugglers to jail. But not everyone arrested for this crime is guilty. More importantly, each client has their own goal for the case. For example, the client may be guilty, but still want to fight the case to preserve his immigration status. Yet in other cases, the client may want to plead guilty quickly to put it behind him.

For this reason, anyone charged with smuggling aliens should speak with a qualified and affordable criminal defense attorney. Together, they can discuss the options and prepare a realistic plan for the case.

Attorney Genaro Cortez

Law Office of Genaro R. Cortez, P.L.L.C.

730 West Hildebrand Avenue
Suite 2,
San Antonio, Texas 78212
Phone: 210-733-7575
Fax: 210-733-7578
Email: genaro.cortez@cortezlawyer.org