More than 17,000 people were smuggled or trafficked into the United States last year. Some were duped into believing that jobs awaited them and instead were forced into debt peonage, required to work in orchards and fields or as housemaids to reimburse the cost of their transport. Others, mostly women and children, were trafficked into sex slavery, and still others were shipped in by boat or brought across the Mexican border by organized smuggling rings.
Even those who come voluntarily in search of work can find themselves in the hands of sophisticated criminal enterprises, with guides who are just as likely to rob, assault or hold them for ransom if full payment isn't made as they are to lead them north. The tales of smugglers' heartlessness are well known. The worst case occurred in 2003, when a truck driver abandoned 70 immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic, leaving them sealed inside a trailer in south Texas; 19 died of dehydration, overheating and suffocation.
Although the fatalities in that case led to a life sentence for the truck driver, human smugglers in more routine cases can get off with a year or two behind bars, as the crime, incredibly, is only a misdemeanor. This leaves international networks of transporters, recruiters, guides and boat captains free to move human cargo with only the risk of a judicial slap on the wrist from the United States.
With sentences that do not jibe with the crime, it's no wonder that global smuggling has become a multibillion-dollar market. A bill sponsored by Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.), the Alien Smuggling and Terrorism Prevention Act, would stiffen the penalties for smuggling, raising it from a misdemeanor to a felony and setting a five-year minimum sentence for many offenses. Longer terms would be imposed on smugglers who expose their victims to risk of death, kidnapping or rape, or whose offense is related to terrorism.
The bill passed the House unanimously last year but lost momentum in the Senate. Hill reintroduced it, and last month it again passed the House unanimously. The Senate Judiciary Committee has it now and must not let it languish. The United States dismantled much of its human smuggling apparatus more than a century ago. But in recent years, with the creation of an anti-slavery office in the Justice Department and tougher anti-trafficking laws, we have recognized the unfortunate need to reassemble that machinery. As a destination for some of the world's least fortunate people, the U.S. must assert itself in the global effort to halt human smuggling, and Hill's legislation would help.