Will Mexican Cartels Benefit From Immigration Reform?

PHOTO: Soldiers search a vehicle at the Juarez Avenue border crossing into the USA on January 14, 2009 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Critics of immigration reform say that new laws will make it easier for Mexican cartels to operate in the U.S.Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Soldiers search a vehicle at the Juarez Avenue border crossing into the USA on January 14, 2009 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Critics of immigration reform say that new laws will make it easier for Mexican cartels to operate in the U.S.

On Monday, Chris Crane, the union president of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), berated the recently proposed immigration reform bill during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

"My initial impression of this bill, thus far, is that in large part it appears to have a lot of loopholes," Crane said shortly after confessing that he hadn't read the bill.

For the past few weeks, Crane, an outspoken opponent of the legislation, has been a constant presence in conservative media. Along with Sheriffs from several states, he has repeatedly argued that the so-called Gang of Eight's bill doesn't do enough to promote enforcement and to protect America from a growing threat: Mexican cartels.

"We know that the drug cartels' troops and the soldiers are all within the interior of the United States as are many other criminal elements and criminal individuals," Crane said earlier this month. "There are people coming here for this to be a land of opportunity and there are people coming here because this is a target of opportunity. We believe there is a very disproportionate number of criminals coming into the United States."

Indeed, there are recent reports that point to a rising presence of Mexican cartels in America. Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel have been actively expanding their drug trafficking, money laundering, and enforcement activities in the U.S. in recent years. According to law enforcement officials and court records, the cartels have sent operatives north and recruited American gang members in their efforts to further develop their human smuggling, drug dealing, weapons trafficking, and extortion operations.

So are Crane's fears warranted? Will immigration reform lead the way to an increase in cartel presence in the United States? Will it simplify cartel operations and increase violence in the southwest border?

For most of the bill's supporters, the answer is a straightforward "No." The legislation includes a funding increase for Homeland Security that will pay for more unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), more fencing, more metrics, and for 3,500 new Customs and Border Patrol officers. It will create an entry/exit screening system, and it will also open the door for the government to gather information about the 11 million people who are currently in the shadows.

All of this further will increase border security and strengthen the fight against human smuggling and drug trafficking, according to Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. "Knowing who [undocumented immigrants] are is critical for public safety," Napolitano said during a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

Unfortunately, the story isn't that simple, according to several border security analysts. "The proposals sound great, they really do," Sylvia Longmire, a former Air Force investigator and the author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, told ABC/Univision. "But the timeline in the bill is unrealistic. What's more, we've been trying to improve border security for years. Why would things suddenly change now?"

The current draft of the immigration reform bill includes several provisions that could enhance border security, and others that could backfire and benefit Mexican criminals.

"I think immigration reform could be highly beneficial to curb the general atmosphere of illegality that aids the cartels' operations," said Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, referring to the lack of legal oversight that permeates the lives of undocumented immigrants. "When you have 10 or 11 million undocumented workers who are not recognized by the law, this creates an environment of illegality that criminal organizations can exploit."

Crimes against undocumented immigrants are consistently underreported, in large part because victims don't trust the police or are fearful or being deported. Immigration reform would change that, and could lead to a large number of prosecutions if empowered victims step forward and report crimes to U.S. authorities, Longmire says.

"The one thing that could result from immigration reform is that people who are here illegally could be more forthcoming in reporting cartel activity to the police," Longmire said.

At the same time, though, the economic and social benefits that the bill contemplates could work against the bill's beneficiaries, according to George W. Grayson, an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Mexicans are the main targets of the Mexican cartels and quite possibly most cartel operatives in the U.S. are Mexican. Cartels have already followed the small exodus of Mexican nationals who have fled the country to escape the violence of the past years, Grayson says. In that sense, immigration reform could attract more criminal operatives by unwillingly establishing a vast an extortion market for groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas.

"If the immigration reform goes through," Grayson told ABC/Univision, "it will become more of a problem. That's not because undocumented immigrants are criminals, but because it will create a larger population of Mexicans that can be targets, or a larger population that can be employed by the cartels."

The levels of violence that Mexico has witnessed are still far away, however. In fact, Grayson's scenario could be overblown, according to other analysts.

The cartels operate in the U.S. following significantly different rules than they do in Mexico. While in south of the border they have established territorial control by buying off, threatening, and ultimately assuming control of local police, in the north they operate much more subtly, according to Grillo, taking care to avoid the gruesome murders that plague everyday life in Mexico.

Moreover, as Longmire points out, cartels have been hiring American gang members to avoid calling attention to themselves. In effect, 80 percent of Border Patrol drug busts involve American citizens, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

"Cartels already have individuals here that are American citizens and are already working for them," Longmire said. Taking that into account, she added, "I don't think immigration will have too much of an impact. It will be business as usual regardless of what happens."