AMU Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Human Trafficking and Human Smuggling at Our Southwest Border

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

There has been a lot of discussion regarding human trafficking through the southwest border of the United States over the past year. Human trafficking involves force, fraud, coercion, or exploitation to obtain some form of labor or commercial sex act, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Human trafficking victims are often groomed by human traffickers through false promises in an attempt for the traffickers to gain their trust. Once a victim’s trust is gained and the victim is under the trafficker’s control, he or she is forced into activities such as sex trafficking, domestic servitude, or forced labor. Passports and personal belongings are often retained by the trafficker to maintain control over the victim.

Human Smuggling Is More Prevalent Than Human Trafficking at the Southwest Border of the US

While some acts of human trafficking occur at our southwest border, human smuggling is much more prevalent. Human smuggling differs from human trafficking because it is transportation-based. Human smuggling typically involves transporting someone for a fee or providing false documents to help someone gain illegal entry into a foreign country.

Gangs and other criminals are active in human smuggling at the southwest border; they provide routes and transportation to undocumented foreign nationals into the United States. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), human smuggling occurs on a daily basis, primarily from Mexico into Texas and New Mexico.

ICE also posits that smugglers transport undocumented foreign nationals through the desert, across the border and into stash houses. Those people are then moved to their final destinations within the interior of the U.S.

The method of transportation varies; people are smuggled on foot, via boats and ships, in tractor trailers, and with many other forms of transportation. With false documentation, smugglers will even smuggle people through commercial transportation such as commercial aircraft, buses and trains.

Human Smuggling Is Extremely Dangerous for Many People

Human smuggling is extremely dangerous for the people seeking to enter the United States along its southwest border. Smugglers are notorious for placing people in hazardous situations that can result in their deaths.

For instance, these hazardous situations include packing people into tight spaces without adequate ventilation, water or food. In one instance of human smuggling in Texas, 10 people died and around three dozen were hospitalized when they were smuggled in a tractor trailer without air conditioning.

During smuggling operations, women and children are especially at risk. They may suffer different forms of physical and emotional abuse, including rape, beatings, kidnapping and robbery. When migrants are smuggled, they are often exposed to harsh conditions such as unsuitable and overcrowded sleeping accommodations, coercion, deceit, and verbal abuse.

Often, migrants pay the smugglers all of the money that they have for illicit transportation to the United States. Other times, family members already residing in the United States pay smuggler fees for their family members to be smuggled into the country.

There can also be a nexus between human smuggling and human trafficking. Sometimes, the migrants do not have enough money to pay for transportation costs or the smuggler increases the smuggling fees in transit. In these cases, migrants are commonly forced into human trafficking situations involving forced labor to pay the debts associated with being transported to the United States.

Human Smuggling Is a Continuing Problem, But There Are Potential Solutions

The issue of human smuggling along the southwest border of the U.S. does not appear to be going away. The U.S. Border Patrol had over 1.6 million encounters with migrants along the southwest border in fiscal year 2021, which is more than quadruple the number from 2020 and the highest annual total of record.

To counter this trend, the incentives to illegally enter the United States should be mitigated. For example, immigration laws should be enforced, and entry into the United States should be limited to those who qualify under current immigration law.

In addition, traffickers should be aggressively prosecuted. According to Customs and Border Protection, 60% of Border Patrol agents’ time has been diverted to serving the humanitarian needs of undocumented migrants. This issue should be addressed so that Border Patrol agents can proactively provide border protection to stop human smuggling.

Additionally, the utilization of technology is needed to better secure the southwest border. Border Patrol agents should be provided with the resources, technology, and manpower to reduce human smuggling at our southwest border, which will save the lives of migrants who experience perilous conditions while being smuggled into the United States.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. His expertise includes human trafficking, maritime security and narcotics trafficking trends. Jarrod recently conducted in-country research in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in human and narcotics trafficking. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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