Survey of INS's Anti-Smuggling Units
Report Number I-2001-003
ASUs PERCEIVE A LACK OF DIRECTION FROM INS HEADQUARTERS REGARDING THE ANTI-SMUGGLING STRATEGY
There is nearly unanimous agreement among ASU supervisors that ASU agents "should be primarily responsible for investigating individuals and/or organizations that smuggle illegal aliens into and within the United States." (Question 1 of our survey) In general, ASU supervisors and the agents who work for them know what they are supposed to do. However, their mission, as it is defined by INS headquarters, is less clear to them.
The mission of the anti-smuggling program-to identify, disrupt, dismantle, and deter alien smuggling organizations-is presented in INS's national anti-smuggling strategy, issued in 1997. However, some of the ASU agents we interviewed did not know that the written strategy document existed, which leads us to believe that the strategy has not been widely disseminated in the field. Also, some ASU supervisors said that they have not received guidelines from headquarters on how to implement the anti-smuggling strategy. 8
To evaluate how well ASU supervisors understand the mission of the anti-smuggling program, we asked them, during our survey, to respond to the following statement:
The mission of your ASU has been clearly defined by INS headquarters.
The responses to the statement were:
We find it significant that 45.7 percent of the ASU supervisors felt that the ASU mission had not been clearly defined by INS headquarters. The fact that such a high percentage of respondents does not recognize a clearly defined ASU mission leads us to believe that INS headquarters and ASUs in the field do not have the same understanding of the ASU mission. It may be that directives from headquarters are not being clearly communicated, through all the levels, down to the ASUs.
Question 3: The mission of your ASU has been clearly defined by INS headquarters.
Districts versus Sectors
57.1% of the Districts surveyed answered either "disagree" or "strongly disagree"
28.6% of the Sectors surveyed answered either "disagree" or "strongly disagree"
The above breakdown of the survey results for Question 3 indicates that the ASU mission is not as clearly understood by ASUs in the district offices as it is by ASUs in the Border Patrol sectors. This seems logical because, as was stated in the Background section of this report, ASUs are more clearly defined entities within the Border Patrol than they are in the district offices. Border Patrol ASUs usually function as specialized units, often physically separated from the sector headquarters (to protect undercover operations), with agents dedicated solely to anti-smuggling cases.
The results of our survey revealed that not only is there a lack of a clear understanding of the ASU mission, but there is also disagreement about how to accomplish that mission. We asked the ASU supervisors to respond to the following statement:
There is agreement between INS headquarters and your district director/sector chief over what the mission of your ASU should be.
The ASU supervisors responded as follows:
While 48.5 percent of the respondents note agreement on the ASU mission between INS headquarters and their district director or sector chief, 28.6 percent registered disagreement. We find it problematic that 51.5 percent of the respondents (those who disagree or had no opinion) could not say that there was agreement between INS headquarters and their district director or sector chief over what the mission of their ASU should be.
We believe that lack of a clear understanding of the ASU mission at the district and sector level can affect how that mission is implemented in individual ASUs. District directors and sector chiefs make decisions about what kinds of cases the ASUs work and how resources are allocated. Unless district directors and sector chiefs have a good understanding of headquarters' vision of what their mission should be, decisions made in the districts and sectors may not be in keeping with INS's national priorities for anti-smuggling operations, and, consequently, the ability to accomplish those priorities becomes diluted.
Some INS officials we interviewed said that the national anti-smuggling strategy is too broad to implement given the number of ASU agents available. Those officials suggested that the anti-smuggling program needs to narrow its focus, to determine the highest priorities, and to stay focused on those few priorities until they are successfully addressed. However, those same officials said that INS has trouble identifying priorities because it does not have reliable, well-disseminated intelligence about the smuggling organizations it is trying to combat. Without such intelligence information, it is difficult to identify priorities and successfully address them.
MANY INS PERSONNEL SEE THE NEED FOR A SINGLE CHAIN OF COMMAND FOR ANTI-SMUGGLING UNITS
The location of ASUs both in INS district offices and in Border Patrol sectors requires ASUs to report to INS headquarters through two separate chains of command. The supervisor of an ASU in a Border Patrol sector reports to the sector chief. The supervisor of an ASU in a district office reports to the district director. The sector chief and the district director, in turn, report to the regional director, and the regional director reports to INS headquarters.
In May 2000, the GAO reported: "INS headquarters and regional officials told us that achieving the [anti-smuggling] strategy's goals of targeting major investigations and coordinating enforcement operations has been difficult because district and sector anti-smuggling units do not report through a single chain of command." 9
In administering our survey, we asked the ASU supervisors to respond to the following statement:
ASUs should report to INS headquarters through a single chain of command.
The responses to the statement were:
Clearly, there is strong sentiment about the need for a single chain of command when 91.4 percent of the ASU supervisors either "Strongly Agree" or "Agree" with the statement. The three ASU supervisors who disagreed with the need for a single chain of command were all supervisors in district offices; all of the Border Patrol sector ASU supervisors we surveyed agreed with the need for a single chain of command.
Question 9: ASUs should report to INS headquarters through a single chain of command.
The recognized need for a single chain of command raises the issue of whether ASUs should be located under the Border Patrol or INS Investigations. INS officials hold varying opinions about that issue. We discussed this issue not only with ASU supervisors but also with ASU agents, district directors and sector chiefs, ASU coordinators in the regional offices, and INS headquarters officials. One position we heard often is that, from a law enforcement standpoint, it makes the most sense to locate ASUs in Border Patrol sectors because the ASU can operate as a "detective" corps working in conjunction with the uniformed Border Patrol Agents (analogous to uniformed police officers), who, through their border enforcement activities, generate leads and intelligence for ASU agents to investigate. However, some INS officials feel that locating ASUs only in border locations (i.e., only in the Border Patrol sectors) would leave corridors and staging areas used by smugglers in the interior of the country without adequate enforcement coverage. Consequently, even though they agree with the need for a single chain of command, they believe there is value in having ASUs in both the district offices and the Border Patrol sectors-as long as those ASUs do not have overlapping areas of responsibility.
The strongest possibility of overlap occurs in cities where ASUs exist in both the district office and the Border Patrol sector, such as San Diego and Miami. One INS regional official said it does not make sense to have ASUs in both the San Diego Border Patrol sector and the San Diego district office. We observed during our site visit to San Diego that the two ASUs could easily end up working the same cases (with the exception of the cases generated by the San Ysidro port of entry, which are worked solely by the district office ASU). Several San Diego officials-both in the Border Patrol and the district office-told us that the ASUs have to circulate "no-hit" lists to inform the other San Diego ASU about targets and drop houses they have under surveillance so that the two ASUs will not get in each other's way. Such overlap can compromise an investigation or pose a threat to officer safety.
In Miami, although there are two ASUs-one in the Border Patrol sector and one in the district office-the division of labor is more clearly defined than it is in San Diego. Miami Sector and Miami District officials have negotiated an arrangement by which the Border Patrol ASU works all cases that involve maritime smuggling and the district ASU covers the ports of entry. With these clearly defined responsibilities, the possibility of overlap or conflict between the two ASUs is diminished.
As one district director told us, no one at INS has outlined on paper how district and sector ASUs should coordinate their activities. Because there are no written guidelines from INS headquarters in this matter (SCO officials told us they do not have the authority to mandate cooperation between ASUs), policies for routine coordination among ASUs must be worked out at the district/sector level or at the ASU level. We believe it would make more sense to end the collocation of ASUs, which is one of the more problematic features of the dual chain of command. Having a district ASU and a sector ASU in the same city is redundant. One ASU with a larger number of agents would be more effective.
The debate about whether ASUs should be located under the Border Patrol or under the Investigations division has gone on for a long time without INS providing any clear solution. But what is clear is the need for better communication between headquarters and the ASUs, and a less complicated command structure would enhance communication. We also see a need for dedicated ASU agents. In the Border Patrol ASUs, agents are dedicated to anti-smuggling operations. In some districts, however, ASU agents are rotated to other activities, depending upon the district's priorities. For example, in San Diego District, ASU agents have sometimes been assigned to work the lines at the San Ysidro port of entry. Not only does that assignment take them away from their anti-smuggling investigations, but it puts them in public view, which could limit their ability to be effective as undercover agents in subsequent ASU investigations. We believe that, whether they work in districts or in sectors, ASU agents need to be dedicated full time to anti-smuggling operations.
COORDINATION PROBLEMS OCCUR BETWEEN ANTI-SMUGGLING UNITS AND OTHER INS ENTITIES
Coordination issues arise among ASUs, between an ASU and the corresponding INS regional office, and between ASUs and INS headquarters. One problem that occurs is duplication of effort when two ASUs unknowingly begin working the same case. GAO reported that INS's ". . .lack of a case tracking and management system has, on occasion, led to duplicate investigations. In one instance, [INS officials] found that two anti-smuggling units were investigating the same organization." 10 The duplication of effort was discovered at INS headquarters when the two ASUs each submitted requests for approval of undercover investigations of the same smuggling organization. To prevent the recurrence of such situations, GAO recommended that INS develop an agency-wide case tracking and management system. INS reported to GAO that its Enforcement Case Tracking System (ENFORCE), which is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of FY 2001, will satisfy this need.
At the time of our review, ASU supervisors recognized duplication of effort as an ongoing problem among ASUs. In our survey, we asked the ASU supervisors to respond to the following: Your ASU should be required to notify or consult with other ASUs before starting or while conducting an investigation. Seventy-five percent of the respondents agreed that such notification or consultation should take place. 11 Although INS headquarters provides information to ASUs about designated priority investigations-to prevent duplicate investigations-ASUs working smaller, localized cases can easily overlap in their efforts. 12 Respondents to our survey said that, on occasion, other ASUs had unknowingly duplicated investigations conducted by the respondent's ASU. 13 In general, ASUs do not have enough agents to work all the potential anti-smuggling cases, so they need to be sure that their agents are not duplicating the efforts of agents in other ASUs. Better communication and coordination among ASUs is crucial to ensuring that ASUs make the best use of their resources.
Another problem that hampers coordination between ASUs, according to ASU agents, is competition over which ASU will get credit for the case. We were told that cases in which one ASU is trying to claim all the "glory" result in lessened information-sharing and cooperation with other ASUs that could or should be involved. In designated priority investigations that involve more than one ASU, the INS regional offices are asked to facilitate coordination among ASUs. Based on what we were told, they achieve this with varying rates of success, depending on geographic considerations and the personalities involved in the investigations. One regional ASU Coordinator told us that eliciting cooperation among multiple ASUs working on the same case was the biggest "headache" of his job.
ASUs coordinate with the INS regional offices on various anti-smuggling program activities. For example, ASUs submit requests for approval of undercover operations and funding requests to the regional offices, where regional ASU personnel review the requests and then route those they concur with to INS headquarters. The regional offices are also responsible for distributing to the ASUs funding provided by INS headquarters for priority investigations.
In an attempt to assess the quality of the interaction between ASUs and the regions, we asked the ASU supervisors:
Overall, how would you rate the level of coordination that exists between your ASU and your INS regional office?
We received the following responses:
Although these results reveal that ASUs have a good degree of satisfaction with their interaction with the regional offices, our interviews with ASU personnel turned up a number of complaints. The two most prevalent were: (1) it takes too long to get requests through region to headquarters and to receive the appropriate approvals; and (2) the regions take too long to disburse funding supplied by headquarters for priority investigations.
Many ASU supervisors question why they have to route their requests through the regions, which they see as an unnecessary level of bureaucracy that delays their investigations. They said that information in a case can get "stale" while they are waiting for headquarters approval for undercover operations. INS officials besides ASU supervisors gave us the same assessment. One official pointed out that INS is the only federal law enforcement entity that has a regional structure. Some ASU agents said that FBI and DEA agents can get approval for undercover operations much more quickly than INS's ASU agents because FBI and DEA supervisors in the field can grant the authority. Consequently, when ASU agents are working task force cases with agents from the FBI or the DEA, they try to expedite the investigation by letting the FBI or DEA agents get the necessary approvals.
Because many documents and requests traveling from ASUs to INS headquarters are filtered through the region, the amount of interaction ASUs have with INS headquarters is less than they have with the regional offices. Nonetheless, we found that ASUs do have occasion to interact with INS headquarters-usually concerning designated priority investigations. To obtain their assessment of the quality of their interaction with INS headquarters, we asked the ASU supervisors:
Overall, how would you rate the level of coordination that exists between your ASU and INS headquarters?
The responses were:
These results give headquarters a 45.8 percent approval rating (when the responses for "Excellent" and "Good" are added together). However, it is noteworthy that 54.2 percent of the respondents rate coordination with headquarters as "Fair" or "Poor."
Although INS headquarters (the SCO Branch) does not have direct supervisory authority over the ASUs, ASUs look to headquarters for guidance. According to our survey, headquarters' performance in this area falls short. We asked the ASU supervisors:
To what extent has INS headquarters addressed any concerns or problems raised by your ASU?
The responses were:
To a Great Extent
To a Moderate Extent
To a Limited Extent
Not at All
When added together, the responses for "To a Limited Extent" and "Not at All" total 71.3 percent. These results indicate that ASU supervisors perceive a lack of responsiveness on the part of INS headquarters. We find it problematic that ASUs believe that headquarters does not respond when ASUs communicate concerns or problems. Furthermore, a number of INS officials said that there is a lack of leadership from headquarters in regard to anti-smuggling efforts. Consequently, ASUs operate in an autonomous fashion, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
In our estimation, ASUs require some measure of autonomy because local ASU agents are the experts on the nature of the smuggling activity that occurs in their locales, and they likely know the best methods for countering that activity. However, ASUs cannot be completely autonomous because they are accountable to the INS hierarchy. That hierarchy sometimes hinders their operational effectiveness. For example, many ASUs regard the INS regional offices as a needless step in the process for getting INS headquarters' approval and funding for ASU investigations. 14 ASUs' concerns are legitimate; taking too long with paperwork can delay investigations. We believe the anti-smuggling program would run more efficiently if there were a direct line of communication between the ASUs and INS headquarters. Obviously this would require a staff larger than the current SCO branch staff, but the positions could be transferred from the regional offices.
ANTI-SMUGGLING UNITS PERCEIVE VARIATIONS IN THEIR EFFECTIVENESS
The SCO Branch primarily focuses on two measures to assess the overall effectiveness of the anti-smuggling program: (1) the number of priority investigation cases presented for prosecution; and (2) the number of principals presented for prosecution for alien smuggling violations. ASUs contribute to these overall numbers. In FY 1999, INS presented for prosecution seven priority investigation cases and a total of 1,967 smugglers. 15
During our inspection, it became clear to us that various INS entities (districts, sectors, ASUs) have different methods of determining the effectiveness of ASUs. One of the challenges in measuring effectiveness is the ASUs' four-part mission-to identify, dismantle, disrupt, and deter alien smuggling organizations. All four parts of the mission do not lend themselves equally to performance measures. For example, a number of the INS officials said it is difficult to measure how effectively INS is deterring alien smuggling organizations. For one thing, it is impossible to measure the number of smugglers and smuggled aliens that get through without being apprehended, so it is difficult to develop a baseline from which progress towards deterrence could be assessed. For another, if there is a drop in alien smuggling activity, it is difficult to prove whether that decrease is because of INS enforcement efforts or because of bad weather conditions.
In our survey of the ASU supervisors, we asked four separate questions to give the respondents an opportunity to rate their ASUs for effectiveness in identifying, dismantling, disrupting, and deterring alien smuggling organizations. The questions were worded as follows:
Overall, how would you rate your ASU's effectiveness in [identifying/dismantling/disrupting/deterring] alien smuggling organizations?
The responses are represented on the chart below:
Questions 18-21: Overall, how would you rate your ASU's effectiveness in . . .
The results indicate that respondents consider ASUs most successful in identifying alien smuggling organizations and least successful in deterring those organizations. When we add together the positive responses, i.e., a response of either "Excellent" or "Good," the percentage of respondents rating each activity positively was:
Identifying alien smuggling organizations
Disrupting alien smuggling organizations
Dismantling alien smuggling organizations
Deterring alien smuggling organizations
The ratings vary noticeably between the district office ASUs and the Border Patrol sector ASUs. For example, in rating their effectiveness in dismantling alien smuggling organizations, 85.7 percent of the sector ASU supervisors gave their ASUs favorable ("Excellent" or "Good") ratings. District ASU supervisors gave no "Excellent" ratings for dismantling alien smuggling organizations, and the "Good" ratings totaled only 61.9 percent.
Among the four questions, the greatest number of "Poor" ratings were given for ASUs' effectiveness in deterring alien smuggling organizations-with 25.7 percent of the ASU supervisors making that selection. The breakdown of those responses for districts and sectors is as follows:
We believe that the two performance measures INS was using at the time of our review-the number of priority investigation cases presented for prosecution and the number of principals presented for prosecution-were not sufficient to assess the effectiveness of the anti-smuggling program. INS sets no specific numerical targets for priority investigations, and the total number of principals presented for prosecution in one fiscal year might include numbers from cases opened in a previous fiscal year. Neither measure gives a good assessment of the effectiveness of the program. In its review, GAO found that INS had not developed outcome-based performance measures that would indicate success in achieving the goals of the anti-smuggling strategy-to identify, dismantle, disrupt, and deter alien smuggling organizations-and recommended that INS "establish performance measures for the anti-smuggling efforts. . .with which to gauge program effects." 16 In response to GAO's recommendation, INS has begun developing performance measures, but they were not completed at the time of our review. INS's timeline calls for implementing the performance measures during 2001.
LACK OF RESOURCES AFFECTS ANTI-SMUGGLING UNITS' ABILITY TO PERFORM THEIR MISSION
The prevailing sentiment of INS personnel we spoke with throughout our inspection, both through the survey and interviews, is that ASUs do not receive adequate resources to accomplish their mission. First of all, INS has no separate budget for the anti-smuggling program-the funding for ASUs comes out of the Investigations budget. That money is allocated by the regional directors to the districts and sectors. Individual ASUs receive a quarterly allotment, which, according to some ASU supervisors, covers little more than the ASUs' general expenses. (One ASU supervisor said that the $4,000 per quarter allocated to his ASU was barely enough to cover telephone calls and gas for the ASU vehicles.) Additional monies are available, through the SCO Branch, to fund designated priority investigations that have been approved by headquarters.
Besides limited funding, ASUs have reported insufficient numbers of agents as well as other deficiencies in resources. Our survey asked the ASU supervisors:
To what extent has the availability of resources interfered with the ability of your ASU to perform its mission?
The ASU supervisors responded:
To a Great Extent
To a Moderate Extent
To a Limited Extent
Not at All
Question 29: To what extent has the availability of resources interfered with the ability of your ASU to perform its mission?
With 65.7 percent responding "To a Great Extent" and none of the supervisors responding "Not at All," it is clear that the availability of resources affects the ability of the ASUs to perform their mission. Through our site visits and other interviews, we collected information about resources that ASUs lack. First and foremost, ASUs need more agents. ASU personnel we interviewed also expressed needs for additional training and equipment for ASU agents.
From headquarters on down, INS personnel we interviewed said that INS does not have enough ASU agents. It is difficult to determine exactly how many agents are assigned to ASUs in a given fiscal year because the districts periodically rotate agents into and out of the ASUs. Also, any list of ASU agents is a snapshot at the time the list was made; the number of ASU agents can change from one pay period to the next. 17 In addition, the listing Investigations keeps of anti-smuggling program staff includes both agents and support staff.
In FY 1999, there were approximately 270 ASU agents, according to officials in the SCO Branch. That number of agents, the officials said, is not enough to offset the steadily increasing smuggling of aliens into the United States. They pointed out that in FY 1999 the DEA had more than 4,500 agents to combat drug smuggling. INS's anti-smuggling program has a fraction of that number of agents and yet it is expected to accomplish an analogous mission.
Because of the small numbers of ASU agents, ASU supervisors are forced to be selective about which anti-smuggling cases they work. Some ASU supervisors told us they would like to do more proactive cases, but they do not have enough agents to work the cases. Many ASU supervisors said they get leads they cannot develop because their agents are already working other cases. ASU supervisors have to prioritize their operations, which often requires them to ignore some of the ongoing smuggling activity. For example, at the time of our inspection neither Miami District ASU nor Miami Sector ASU was working over-the-road smuggling cases, which are prevalent in Florida, because they had too many cases of maritime smuggling and smuggling through the ports of entry. 18
In addition to not having enough agents, ASUs cannot provide sufficient training for the agents they do have. Some ASU supervisors said that their ASUs have no funding allocated specifically for training. Any training costs must come out of the general expenses fund. However, once the other expenses of the ASU are covered, there is little or no money left for training. Several agents we interviewed said that they had received no ASU-specific training when they were assigned to the ASU. Those agents said that the lack of training is problematic because ASU investigations are more complicated than other investigations, such as immigration fraud cases or worksite enforcement.
Training in the use of technical investigation equipment is the area of greatest need, according to the ASU agents we interviewed during our site visits. Out of 42 agents interviewed, 24 identified specific areas in which ASU agents need, but do not get, training. Of those 24 agents, 15 said there is a need for technical training. Although ASU agents have access to various technologies that can facilitate their investigations, such as electronic surveillance equipment or pen registers, those agents often have received no training in the use of such devices. 19 If they wish to employ technical equipment in an investigation, they often must wait for assistance from an agent who knows how to operate the equipment. Such agents are not always available, and the agents who have not had technical training are forced to put their investigations on hold until someone is available to assist them.
Equipment needs vary widely from one ASU to another. The equipment need mentioned most often by the ASU agents and ASU supervisors we interviewed was "undercover" vehicles that agents can use while conducting surveillance. Undercover vehicles generally are obtained through seizures made during law enforcement operations. However, changes in asset forfeiture laws have limited the number of seizures INS makes, thus eliminating a source for undercover vehicles. No new provisions for purchasing undercover vehicles have been enacted, so ASU agents have sometimes had to conduct surveillance in undercover vehicles that have been used in so many operations that they are at risk of being identified by the criminals under surveillance. The fact that ASUs do not have sufficient undercover vehicles can compromise investigations or pose safety risks to undercover agents.
Resource distribution is a complicated task with many competing demands, and we realize that there will always be shortages, both perceived and real. It is widely recognized throughout the anti-smuggling program, both at headquarters and in the field, that more ASU agents are needed. Congress also appears to recognize this need; pending legislation would increase the number of positions for "full-time, active duty investigators or other enforcement personnel within the Immigration and Naturalization Service who are assigned to combating alien smuggling" by 50 per year for five years. 20 Training and equipment needs are less easily defined and more widely varied from one ASU to the next. Without a complete assessment, made in the context of INS regional priorities, we cannot recommend specific allocations for training and equipment. However, we urge INS to assess ASUs' needs in these areas.