Smuggling as care, not crime

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Features

If Donald Trump is to be believed, the US-Mexico border in 2017 looks something like a warzone. ‘People are flowing through,’ Trump reasoned on the campaign trail last year. ‘They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,’ the now-president said of Mexicans crossing the border; although ‘some’, he added, ‘I assume are nice people.’

Yet, despite the president’s insistence on the need to ‘build a big, beautiful wall’ to separate the United States from Mexico, conversations with those who actually live either side of the border quickly dispel the Trumpian dystopia. According to Gabriella Sanchez, a socio-cultural anthropologist who recently joined the Migration Policy Centre (MPC), life on the border is as it has been for centuries.

‘If you look at migration patterns over time, you will see that this so-called ‘crisis’ is not really a crisis at all,’ Sanchez told EUI Times, in her office at Villa Malafrasca. ‘There have been other times in history where larger numbers of people have migrated. The conversation surrounding migration is missing some historical perspective.’

‘Suffering sells’

Sanchez specializes in migrant smuggling, an aspect of migration often equated with trafficking – an altogether more nefarious issue. The difference between the two, Sanchez explains, is consent. According to the UN Smuggling Protocol, when a person is smuggled they consent to be transported into a country different from their own.


Gabriella Sanchez, pictured here on the US-Mexico border, is advocating a more considered approach to smuggling.

Trafficking, on the other hand, involves coercion and deception and is non-consensual. The most stereotypical example concerns women who are told they will receive great jobs on the other side of the border, only to end up being sold into prostitution. In reality, the most common form of trafficking involves labour.

Definitions aside, Sanchez believes that smuggling is grossly misunderstood. Mention of smuggling in the media often evokes images of shady criminal networks, exploiting and abusing desperate migrants – not only along the US-Mexico border, but in the Mediterranean too. Yet Sanchez paints a different picture. ‘There are all these powerful images connected to smuggling,’ Sanchez says. ‘We are bombarded by images of suffering – ‘the suffering migrant’, or ‘the suffering migrant woman’. This hyper-representation of suffering is often detached from reality.’

Before entering academia, she explains, she worked in detention facilities and county jails along the US-Mexico border, interviewing men and women charged with smuggling. ‘Most of the people I spoke to were not members of drug trafficking organisations or powerful people at all. They were single mothers, gardeners, cooks – people working very low-paying jobs, who were just trying to make ends meet.’

The media, however, is often uninterested in telling this side of the story. ‘Suffering sells,’ Sanchez says. ‘We get a lot of calls from media outlets asking for access to victims of smuggling or trafficking. We tell them that they’re normal people, and they don’t look like you think they do.’ When journalists are told that migrants are ‘very resilient and very able to adapt and integrate into society,’ they quickly lose interest.

Sanchez, who arrived at the EUI from the University of Texas in El Paso in September, has spent time with smugglers across the world. In each region – from the Mediterranean to the Middle East  – she found that smuggling ‘was taking place along the same lines’.

‘It was the same people. They were not organized in these scary networks. Migrants trusted them, that’s why they were travelling with them, and their relationship was not always exploitative. In fact, it is often a relationship built on trust and care.’


At the moment, changing the conversation around smuggling feels like an uphill task, particularly in Washington. Since stepping foot in the Oval Office, Trump has sought to crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration to the US, matching bellicose rhetoric with controversial legislation. Consequently, ‘the border’ has taken on even greater meaning as a political buzzword, and immigration policy has come under intense scrutiny.

At least, that’s what it feels like from the outside. For people living on the border, Sanchez claims, Trump’s bombast has largely been treated with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘Every presidential cycle, there is all this talk that the border is not safe or protected, that we need to build the wall. For people who live on the border, we just think ‘oh this again’. In four years, someone is going to come along and ask us all the same questions.’

‘This is nothing new,’ she tells EUI Times. ‘All of the harassment, all of the intimidation, being followed at night or just being questioned for how we look or who we are – that is something we have been dealing with forever. This has been everyday life for us.’ In this sense, Sanchez says, very little has changed at the border in Trump’s America.

Indeed, since Barack Obama left office, there has been a tendency among disenchanted liberals – and even some conservatives – to look at his presidential tenure with rose-tinted glasses. That is something that Sanchez, despite her contempt for Trump (‘he’s horrible’), refuses to do.

‘Don’t even mention that guy to me,’ she sighs exasperatedly. While Trump is ‘saying and doing all of these things’, the deportations that have taken place on his watch are targeting precisely the same people as were targeted under Obama – from people in predominantly migrant neighbourhoods to unaccompanied migrants, or even people who have recently arrived from Central America and are waiting to have their cases heard in court.

Obama was famously nicknamed the ‘deporter-in-chief’ by critics in the immigrant-rights community, having overseen the deportation of over 2.5 million people during his eight years in office – more than every twentieth century US president combined. ‘He was the worst when it came to enforcing immigration,’ Sanchez insists.

There have been concerted efforts made in the US to crack down on smuggling. Notable among these was a case in Arizona from 2004, wherein the Arizona State Congress passed the so-called ‘Coyote Law’ (smugglers are often referred to as ‘coyotes’), which was intended to provide guidelines to prosecute smugglers. A few months later, the then-county attorney general Andrew Thomas ruled that the statute allowed him to prosecute migrants, under the claim that they were conspiring to commit their own smuggling.  While Thomas’ interpretation was eventually ruled unconstitutional, over a thousand migrants had already been convicted.

Jeff Sessions, the current US Attorney General and a notorious hardliner when it comes to immigration, appears to be pursuing a similar set of policies on behalf of the Trump administration. A recent operation led by the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) ‘pretty much targeted families that got their kids smuggled,’ Sanchez explains. It allowed DHS to charge parents with smuggling, claiming that they were assisting smuggling rackets by trying to have their children smuggled over the border, into the US.

‘A better understanding’

Sanchez finds such endeavours incredibly concerning. ‘Most smuggling which involves children is facilitated to get them out of danger. Parents are paying smugglers to bring their kids to them out of desperation, not out of pleasure.’ What Sessions is doing, she explains, is accelerating the criminalisation of migration. This is an issue that Sanchez hopes to challenge during her time at the EUI.


A large number of people who are smuggled are unaccompanied children, seeking to be reunited with their parents.

At the Migration Policy Centre, she plans to conduct  field-work based, comparative research on smuggling practices around the world. In April 2016, the MPC hosted its first Smuggling Workshop, gathering 26 scholars from across the world to start a conversation on smuggling studies, with the aim of showcasing contemporary evidence-based research in the field. A second edition of the workshop took place at the University of Texas in El Paso in April of this year.

In late October, in collaboration with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the MPC convened an event at Villa Schifanoia to explore the criminological dimensions of smuggling practices. ‘Partnerships of this kind are essential yet often missing in academic and policy circles,’ Sanchez says. ‘Furthermore, there is scant research on smuggling practices. Our work seeks to address this gap.’

Smuggling itself is not the problem, Sanchez suggests. Rather, it emerges out of a problem – that of migrants not being able to freely cross borders. In that vein, the best way to stop smuggling would be for governments and states to readily issue visas and passports, thus eliminating the demand for smugglers. That, she acknowledges, ‘is never going to happen.’

Instead, she would like to see smuggling discussed as a ‘form of protection’, albeit one that can often go wrong. ‘We need to understand smuggling as a complex community-based enterprise, rather than solely as a transnational crime issue’ she suggests. ‘Smugglers are often ordinary citizens who are providing a service,’ and migrants, she adds, ‘are not always poor people who don’t know what they’re doing.’ The solution, Sanchez believes, is to produce evidence-based research which helps to curb exploitative practices which put migrants’ lives at risk.

‘We need a better understanding that is not all malignant. That is our goal.’

Gabriella Sanchez is a Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre, based at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

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