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Attorney General Ashcroft Transcript

Attorney General Ashcroft Announces Results of Operation Great Basin
December 10, 2001
DOJ Conference Room

(Note: This event was fed in progress.)

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: (In progress) -- the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, no stranger to you all, Jim Ziglar; also, Ruben Garcia, the executive assistant director for the criminal matters at the FBI; and the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Paul Charlton.

Today it's a pleasure to announce the results of Operation Great Basin, the largest immigrant-smuggling case ever brought against a United States commercial carrier. Operation Great Basin began two years ago, when Tucson Border Patrol individuals received information about illegal activities by a Los Angeles-based busing company, Golden State Transportation. After a thorough investigation, we are charging Golden State Transportation with knowingly and willingly participating in an illegal migrant-smuggling scheme.

We estimate the company illegally transported from 50 to 300 migrants a day to destinations in the United States. The chief executive of Golden State Transportation and more than 30 other defendants are being charged with transporting and harboring illegal aliens for the purpose of profit. The employees being charged with crimes represent all levels of Golden State, including corporate officers, top-level management, and drivers.

The 39-count indictment being handed down today is the result of a two-year multi-state investigation. The indictment describes how Golden State Transportation routinely permitted migrant smugglers to purchase large blocks of tickets in advance, scheduled bus departures and arrivals late at night, and modified routes to prevent detection by law enforcement officials. U.S. officials used undercover agents and surveillance to painstakingly build the case against Golden State Transportation for this criminal activity. INS and Border Patrol agents made arrests in seven states and executed 19 search warrants in the last two days alone.

I want to congratulate and commend each of the many law enforcement agencies involved in this successful investigation, beginning with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which led the investigation. Approximately 300 agents and officers from various state and federal agencies cooperated in Operation Great Basin to defend the nation's borders. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the South Tucson Police Department and other state and local police in California, Arizona and elsewhere collaborated in this successful investigation.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th remind Americans in the most painful way of the need to defend our borders while keeping them open to peaceful, freedom-loving people. Today's charges prove that we can achieve this balance in our immigration policy. The United States is a compassionate nation built on the hard work of immigrants. We remain committed to welcoming legal immigrants, but we will not tolerate violations of our borders. We will have even less patience for those who seek to violate the nation's immigration laws. The laws of the United States deserve and demand respect.

Operation Great Basin serves as a warning to those organizations, companies, or individuals who would smuggle illegal aliens for profit: United States law enforcement is ready and able to find you, to investigate you, and to prosecute you.

I would like to thank, once again, Commissioner Jim Ziglar and the INS, Border Patrol, for their exemplary work in this investigation. And I am pleased now to call upon Commissioner Ziglar for remarks. Jim, thank you.

MR. ZIGLAR: Thanks, General.

As the attorney general noted, this investigation is the culmination of two years of very extensive investigation and something called Operation Great Basin. This investigation was triggered by some very alert, conscientious Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol.

I'd also like to echo the attorney general's thanks to the more than 300 law enforcement agents of whatever type throughout the country who participated in this investigation. We had folks from, as he mentioned, obviously the INS -- which was the lead agency, and we take great pride in our role in leading this investigation, but we had substantial support from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the South Tucson Police Department, and numerous other law enforcement agencies throughout particularly the West. This investigation covered seven states: Colorado, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Washington.

We are distributing copies of the indictment -- I'm not sure whether it's been handed out yet or not -- for your edification. It's what's called a "speaking indictment," which means that it has a lot of detail in there about the alleged crimes. And so I think you'll find that it's fairly detailed in what we believe occurred here.

As you can understand, the U.S. attorney and myself are somewhat circumscribed by our ability to answer any questions about this case beyond what's in the four corners of that indictment, but I can tell you that this indictment shows the thoroughness of this investigation. What I can tell you is what the attorney general also just told you, and that is, this is the largest human-smuggling case involving a commercial enterprise, at least in the history of the INS. The assets that are subject to forfeiture here are very substantial. And I also can tell you that we have moved today to prohibit this company from distributing or disbursing any of those assets that are subject to forfeiture.

Human smuggling is a dangerous business, and it represents a multi-billion-dollar, global, permanent problem. I think a good example of the impact of human smuggling was seen this weekend in a case that came out of Ireland, where 13 people were found in a cargo container, eight of which died; they were in this container for almost a week without any ventilation. It's a very inhumane, a very dangerous, a very ugly kind of business.

This case -- the case we're talking about here -- affirms our commitment at the INS to disrupt immigrant smuggling on all fronts -- from the border to the boardroom, as in this case.

I'd like to also take this opportunity to reiterate what I told the House committee last week in some testimony, and that is that the INS is determined to carry out its mandate on interior enforcement while also being a leading agency in the terrorist investigation. The initiative that I announced last week with respect to putting into the National Crime Information Center Index the names of what are called "abscondees" -- people who have gotten final deportation orders but have jumped bail -- is a good example of some of the initiatives that we will take. This case is another example of the initiatives, and I can tell you that in the very near term, you're going to hear about a lot of other activities from the INS in terms of our interior enforcement activities.

With that, I'd like to turn to the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Paul Charlton, for a few comments.


MR. CHARLTON: Good afternoon. I think the attorney general and the commissioner have said all that we really can say about the indictment.

But I would like to reiterate that they've said as well about the outstanding job that the Immigration and Naturalization Service did on this investigation. I think the public knows about the hard work and the difficult job that the Border Patrol has watching our frontiers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But they may not be as familiar with the job that the INS and the Border Patrol do in proactive, long-term cases such as the one that's reflected in the indictment you have a copy of today.

One other critical element of good law enforcement is good cooperation with local and state law enforcement, and that's exemplified here as well. I want to thank, just as the commissioner did, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and South Tucson Police Department for their outstanding work and support in this effort. It's also important to recognize, as we already have, the FBI's contribution to this case and the United States Marshals Service assistance.

I believe we have some time for some questions as well.

Q Mr. Ziglar, I'm confused because -- is this the largest smuggling ring involving a commercial bus company or is that a commercial enterprise? And if it's not the largest involving a commercial enterprise, how does it compare to other smuggling rings involving commercial enterprises?

MR. ZIGLAR: Well, when I say "commercial enterprise," I meant a transportation company, which is pretty substantial by anybody's measure.

Q Sir, do you know how much the people who were smuggled had to pay in order to be transported? And was that money -- some of that money then kicked back to the smugglers? Or can you give us any detail about how the financial arrangement worked?

MR. ZIGLAR: As I mentioned, the -- if it's not in the indictment, I can't talk about it. So I don't know the amounts of dollars that were being charged.

Q How many people overall were -- I mean, you said 50 to 300 a day. Over how many -- I mean, is there an estimate of how many people overall were smuggled?

MR. ZIGLAR: I don't have that estimate. What the indictment says is that the estimate was 50 to 300 per day during the year 2000, when a snapshot of the activities were taken.

Q Can you talk about the decision, then, to allow these people to enter the country? Obviously, you had a long-term goal here, which was the investigation. But was there ever discussion about not allowing these people to come into the country during this period?

MR. ZIGLAR: Excuse me one second. Excuse me. I had to check with my counsel there.

The -- this only involved people who had already entered the United States. It was not about coming across the border with these people. They were transported -- once they got here, smuggling rings got them over the border. Then they -- the allegation is that they worked with Golden State to move these people into other parts of the country.

Q But nonetheless, there are thousands of people, then, that the INS is aware of, that were here in this country illegally, and I'm just wanting you to walk us through the process that went on here so you wouldn't, you know, at that point try to remove these people or stop it earlier.

MR. ZIGLAR: Well, let me make two points. The first is that the indictment notes that when these folks were -- tickets were purchased -- advance tickets were purchased for these folks -- generally, false names were put into the manifests, so we don't know who these people were. Secondly, we had to build a case, and it takes quite a while to build a case in a situation like this. So as you know, there are times when activities go on that are criminal in nature that go on, but you're building your case. And so that's what happened. It took us two years to put this case together in a way that we were confident about it.

Q How much, sir, are you thinking about in terms asset forfeiture?

MR. ZIGLAR: I have no way of knowing the real value of it, but let me just say it this way, that there are a substantial number of assets that were involved in this alleged criminal enterprise. And if the -- just in general, I would have to say that this very well could be the largest forfeiture in any immigration-type case, but I don't know that for a fact.

Q Mr. Ziglar?

Q Commissioner, how many years prior to the commencement of your investigation do you suspect that this operation was taking place, number one? And number two, cracking down on Hispanics -- 37 of the 39 names here are Hispanic. Is it more so ow than ever cracking down on Hispanic illegal immigrants?

MR. ZIGLAR: Excuse me a second. (Speaks to staff off mike.)

The conspiracy is alleged to have started in 1996, when there was first, apparently, some evidence of this activity. But the real -- that's a lookback. The real information started about two years ago.

And the answer to you is, this is not a crackdown on Hispanics. This is a crackdown on criminals. And wherever we find criminals, we are going to crack down, regardless of their ethnic background.

STAFF: Last question.

Q How large of concern is this bus company, and can you give us an idea of what their assets are that you -- (inaudible)?

MR. ZIGLAR: Total assets? I don't know what the total assets of the company are.

Q But how large of a concern is --

MR. ZIGLAR: Well, it's a fairly large operation out in the West.

Q Mr. Ziglar, this is off-topic, but have you responded to the FOIA request filed by ACLU and other groups for the names of the nearly 600 people in INS detention as a result of the September 11th investigation?

STAFF: It's still being processed.

MR. ZIGLAR: It's still being processed.

(Cross talk.)

Q Is there a department policy or procedure which leads you not to release a list of these names?

MR. ZIGLAR: I'm not going to get into this issue. Okay? Too many other factors involved in here for me to give you an answer that's fully informed.

(Cross talk.)

Q How about the request from FDLE about the people who have overstayed their visas, non-immigrant visas? FDLE, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and their request --

MR. ZIGLAR: I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question.

Q FDLE, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, made a request of those people who have overstayed their visas. Has the agency made any decision on that?

MR. ZIGLAR: I'm not even aware of that.

Q Well, it's on the wires already.

MR. ZIGLAR: Okay, well --

Q Commissioner Ziglar, is there still 600 -- or 500-and-some INS detainees, or what's the latest figure of INS detainees relating to the September 11th case?

MR. ZIGLAR: I don't know what the number is this morning. I haven't even been over to the INS but just for a few minutes, so I don't know what the number is.

STAFF: Thank you.

Q Mr. Garcia, is there anything you can bring us up to date on anthrax, on the latest about the anthrax investigation?

STAFF: Thank you.