ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When President Trump talks about the need for a border wall with Mexico, he often brings up human traffickers. This was from his State of the Union address a couple weeks ago.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern day slavery.
SHAPIRO: Now a report from ProPublica says under President Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has actually shifted resources away from investigations into human smuggling. Sebastian Rotella is one of the reporters on the story, and he's here in the studio with us. Hi, there
SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Glad to be here.
SHAPIRO: Human smuggling investigations come from the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is called Homeland Security Investigations. You looked at what has happened to that team in the last couple years since President Trump took office. What did you find?
ROTELLA: We found that there's a gulf between the rhetoric and the reality. In other words, Homeland Security Investigations, which has a whole range of responsibility - they're the lead agency on smuggling, but they also do everything from drugs, to child pornography, to counterterrorism - has always had this struggle to do human smuggling cases which are inherently difficult. Contrary to sort of the public image, actually, they've lost funding. They've lost political priority. And a lot of the agents - we talked to a range of people, active and retired - told us that the budget cuts have affected them in terms of less money to do travel for smuggling investigations, less money to pay informants.
SHAPIRO: Just to give one specific number - you write that in the first full fiscal year of the Trump administration, the number of new human smuggling cases brought by this group dropped from more than 3,900 to over 1,600. So we're talking about a drop by more than half.
ROTELLA: That's right. And in the last months of the Obama administration, there had been a surge of border crossing and smuggling. And then, as you say, they went down precipitously. Now, we're told, well, that's because agents are still working cases from last year. But a lot of the people we've talked to said that explanation can't be the whole story.
SHAPIRO: Now these resources are being shifted away from human smuggling investigations and towards - what?
ROTELLA: They're being shifted away from human smuggling investigations, we're told, and other kinds of complex investigations to what would be considered lower-level enforcement. One of the things that happened was that the director of ICE declared that there was going to be a quadrupling or even a quintupling of worksite enforcement audits and investigations.
SHAPIRO: So dropping in on factories, meatpacking plants and seeing whether people there are undocumented.
ROTELLA: That's right. So that's a huge job. So the agents complain to us that they're being pulled into these immigration-related tasks that, to them, are less important than some of the complex investigations they do, including smuggling.
SHAPIRO: The agents and investigators who you spoke with said while there has been a steep drop in funding and resources under the Trump administration, they have been underresourced in other administrations, too.
ROTELLA: That's correct. This is something that has been inherently an issue, but it also has been exacerbated, obviously, by zero tolerance. A lot of the agents complain that the emphasis now is quantity rather than quality, right? So it's out there. If you're arresting and prosecuting people for illegal immigration, the shared numbers of people drain from other sides of the agency.
SHAPIRO: Why is it so important to get into the networks of human smugglers and not just the people who - law enforcement officers happen to run into as they're discharging their duties?
ROTELLA: It's the classic problem of how you fight organized crime. It's not unlike if you fight drug cartels. Are you only going to arrest the small-time dealers or the people who are the addicts? You do that, the organization survives and thrives. The thinking here is this kind of organized crime, these kinds of networks that are moving people - they have a certain vulnerability. And you could actually have a real impact on them. But, again, you'd have to do work south of the border. You have to do wiretaps. You'd have to develop informants, people who were adept at working in foreign cultures with - the Spanish language, for example. These are mafias.
And the way to really hurt them is to understand them, first of all, and then to go after them in a systematic way that looks at things like not just the network but also the corrupt officials who are also helping them. So all that kind of work takes investigation. And you really have to, if you want to have an impact - what everyone has said to me who does investigations is you have to go beyond just grabbing whoever you catch on the street.
SHAPIRO: Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica, thanks very much.
ROTELLA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.