By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
The Biden administration has launched an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt human smuggling networks amid an ongoing influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas exclusively told CNN.
The operation — which includes deploying hundreds of personnel throughout Latin America and a multi-million-dollar investment — comes as the US continues to grapple with a large flow of migrants to the US-Mexico border, including this week as a caravan of up to 5,000 migrants journeys north from southern Mexico.
“We have brought an all-of-government effort to attack the smuggling organizations. It’s not just Homeland Security Investigations, it’s not just US Customs and Border Protection. But we’re working very carefully with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a number of agencies within the Department of Justice, and, of course, our partners in Mexico,” Mayorkas told CNN.
“I think it’s scale and scope; it’s tactics and strategy. It’s really unprecedented,” he added.
Mayorkas is attending the Ninth Summit of the Americas, which is being hosted by the United States in Los Angeles. The gathering of nearly two dozen heads of states from the Western Hemisphere has focused on stabilizing the region and investing in it to, in part, stem the flow migration — an issue that has dogged US presidents, including Joe Biden, for years.
The mass migration within the hemisphere came into sharp focus again this week, as thousands of migrants joined a caravan heading to the US southern border. Asked about how the latest operation applies to that caravan, Mayorkas stressed the administration is “tackling the smuggling organizations that exploit these people.”
The “Sting Operation,” led by the Department of Homeland Security, has so far yielded around 20,000 “disruption actions” that include arrests and prosecutions, seizures of property and criminal investigations, according to the department. The US has also surged over 1,300 personnel throughout the Western Hemisphere and invested over $50 million.
In the last eight weeks, nearly 2,000 smugglers have been arrested, marking a 600% increase in law enforcement actions taken against such actors compared to efforts in previous years, DHS said.
The latest operation builds upon previous initiatives by the Biden administration to go after smugglers who migrants often depend on as they make their way to the US-Mexico border. Last spring, DHS also announced an effort to crack down on criminal smuggling organizations, alongside federal partners.
DHS also set up a new intelligence gathering and law enforcement unit to monitor the movement of migrants and helped stand up a task force, led by the Justice Department, to investigate and prosecute human smuggling and trafficking networks.
Migration looms over Summit of the Americas
At the US southern border, a new trend has been taking shape that’s posed a challenge to the Biden administration: About 40% of border crossers are now from countries outside of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
More than 6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled the country, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nicaraguans have also increasingly been migrating, as well as Haitians who had moved to the region years ago.
Over the course of Summit of the Americas, administration officials have acknowledged the mass migration in the Western Hemisphere, stressing the need for all countries to help alleviate the flow and create better conditions in country.
The gathering has served as a platform for the Biden administration, leaders of countries in the region, and the public and private sector to come to agreements about the path forward in stemming the flow of irregular migration.
Biden has aimed to demonstrate a level of cohesion across the two continents’ politics, but boycotts by leaders of several nations — including Mexico and three Central American countries — has put a damper on the summit.
The four leaders refused to attend because Biden declined to extend invitations to the three autocratic leaders, instead sending lower-level delegations.
Mayorkas dismissed concerns about key leaders skipping the summit, telling CNN: “All the countries are represented here. So, of course, the president of Mexico is not here but I had the good fortune of seeing the foreign minister of Mexico, Secretary Ebrard, here with whom I have worked very closely throughout my trips to Mexico as well as our continuing dialogue. So no, my confidence is unblemished.”
New funding for stabilization efforts
On Friday, against the backdrop of the Summit of the Americas, Biden announced a regional partnership to address mass migration in the Western Hemisphere. The agreement, dubbed the Los Angeles declaration, was signed onto by 20 Western Hemisphere nations.
The agreement “is centered around responsibility sharing and economic support for countries that have been most impacted by refugee and migration flows,” a senior administration official said ahead of Friday’s unveiling.
Under the declaration, governments are expected to commit to expanding temporary worker programs, bolstering legal pathways like refugee resettlement and family reunification, providing support to countries hosting large migrant populations, and cracking down on human smuggling networks.
Speaking at an event unveiling the declaration alongside other signatories, Biden said, “No nation should bear this responsibility alone.” The President also asserted it was on “every country” to maintain orderly and human migration process.
“We need to halt the dangerous and unlawful ways that people are migrating,” he continued. “Unlawful migration is not acceptable.”
Biden also underscored that human traffickers would not be tolerated, saying, “If you prey on desperate and vulnerable migrants for profit, we are coming for you.”
The US announced $314 million in new federal funding for “stabilization efforts in the Americas,” according to a White House factsheet. Leading up to the Summit of the Americas, administration officials repeatedly stressed the need to support countries in the region who are hosting migrants and refugees, especially Venezuelans who have fled their origin country in large numbers.
The funding is part of a concerted effort to encourage countries throughout the Western Hemisphere to share the responsibility as it relates to migration in the hemisphere and provide opportunity to migrants in hopes of stemming irregular migration.
Colombia and Ecuador, for example, are among the countries providing support to Venezuelans and have committed to providing a path to legal status within their countries for those migrants.
Canada also plans to bolster its efforts by increasing the number of refugees it admits from the Americas to up to 4,000 by 2028. Similarly, the US will resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas over the next two years, marking an increase from previous years. And Spain will “double the number of labor pathways for Hondurans,” the fact sheet says.
While at the summit this week, Biden has stressed economic opportunity in the region and providing jobs, which is reflected in the latest slate of migration commitments.
The US Department of Agriculture announced a pilot program to support US farmers in hiring agricultural workers under existing temporary work visas. Mexico committed to integrating thousands of refugees into the Mexican labor market over the next three years, while Canada said it will take in more than 50,000 agricultural workers from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean this year.
When asked by reporters how the US plans to keep on tabs on the various commitments, a senior administration official said it would be an “ongoing dialogue.”
This story has been updated with additional details.
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CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.