Mar 27, 2024 - News

Washington sees human smuggling spike, feds say

Data: CBP; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: CBP; Chart: Axios Visuals

Human smuggling has become a primary focus for federal authorities in Washington state as the number of illegal migrant crossings from Canada into the U.S. reaches record highs, local officials say.

Why it matters: With so much attention on the U.S. southern border, the "historic" amount of activity on the northern border may be overlooked, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge Robert Hammer told Axios.

  • "We need to know who is coming into the country and why and know they are not a threat," he said.

By the numbers: In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 189,402 encounters at the northern border, compared to 109,535 in 2022 and 27,180 in 2021.

  • In Washington, encounters reported by Border Patrol sectors and offices in Blaine, Seattle and Spokane were 43,067 in 2023, more than double the 18,482 encounters reported in 2022. In 2021, there were just 6,032.
  • As of February 2024, there were 22,726 encounters reported in Washington, per Border Patrol.

That "staggering" spike is of great concern, U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman told Axios, especially because of the risks to those smuggled — who may be dropped into the woods on foot at night, stuffed into vehicle trunks or packed in commodity shipments in a sealed freight container.

Between the lines: The boom in northern border crossings at points of entry and between them is linked to networks and smuggling organizations that earn thousands of dollars per transported person, according to Gorman and Hammer.

Cases in point: A Romanian citizen pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Seattle this month to conspiracy to transport people who were not legally in the U.S.

  • Prosecutors allege he picked up 12 illegal migrants in a vehicle that had seats for eight, with two children found unrestrained in the trunk.
  • In June, a California man was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to smuggling more than 800 people into Washington state from Canada using 17 Uber accounts, per the Department of Justice.
  • Many smuggled in by the California man's network paid $11,000 each to make the journey, federal prosecutors said.

What they're saying: "There are, no doubt, humanitarian reasons for people coming into the country," said Gorman, "but we have also seen people smuggled in to commit crimes."

What's next: The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington, HSI Pacific Northwest and Border Patrol are working to understand the reasons behind the spike in smuggling and prosecute the organized crime networks behind it, said Gorman.

  • "These organizations don't care about safety," said Hammer. "They put people in danger every day."
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