ICE cracks down on illegal cross-border trucking

December 2018/January 2019

Tyson Fisher


A recent cabotage sting operation in Nogales, Ariz., sends shockwaves through the Southwest.

Since the notion of an open border to long-haul trucks from Mexico was first floated, one of the lingering concerns has been proven valid: What about cabotage, the illegally transported cargo? A sting operation in Nogales, Ariz., has Homeland Security Investigations sending a message to the industry: Enough is enough

Nogales investigation

In October, agents with Homeland Security Investigations moved in on two principal targets in Nogales for crimes in violation with cross-border trucking laws established by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Approximately 11 arrests were made.

According to HSI Deputy Special Agent in Charge Francisco Burrola, company owners were the target in this investigation. However, “numerous” individuals were arrested during the operation. Trucking companies targeted were mid- to small-sized fleets, less than 100 trucks per fleet.

Burrola told Land Line that HSI is going after the employers rather than the employees. To these bad actors in the industry, the illegal drivers are expendable. However, if you go after the company owners, it’s akin to slaying the head vampire or cutting the head off the snake.

“Some of these companies are losing a lot of their assets, because they decided to skirt the law and continue doing what they were warned not to do,” Burrola said.

And those companies were given plenty of warning. A combination of greed and arrogance would eventually lead to October’s operation that would send shockwaves through the region.

Cabotage in the Southwest

Although October’s operation in Nogales was one of the first cabotage investigations in Arizona, the problem has existed for years. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a division called Worksite Enforcement that deals with these matters. In fact, Worksite goes back to the days of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was founded in 1933 and came to an end in 2003.

ICE, which was formed through the Homeland Security Act of 2002, replaced INS. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency also was born from this act. Agencies enforcing NAFTA rules have existed for a while, but actual enforcement has just recently begun.

“Cabotage came to light last year when the United States Border Patrol – they have numerous immigration check points along the Southwest border to the Northern border – they started to see an uptick in B-1 drivers,” Burrola said.

Burrola was referring to the B-1 visa, which is issued to those seeking entry for business purposes. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, a B-1 visa is required in order for Mexican drivers to enter the U.S. as a commercial truck driver. These are the drivers that are part of the NAFTA rule.

Essentially, B-1 drivers are allowed to take a load into the U.S. and bring it to its final destination, whether it be Nogales, Los Angeles or even Canada. But it must be a direct line, from the load’s foreign start to its destination.

Mexican drivers can pick up a load in Nogales (while unloading in Nogales) that is destined for Mexico. Unfortunately, some Southwest trucking companies violated those rules. Individuals have been picking up loads that were originating in Nogales and taking them to a final destination within the United States, a complete violation of the NAFTA rules.

A U.S. trucker can make $500 to $700 delivering a load from Tucson, Ariz., to Los Angeles, Burrola points out. However, Mexican drivers will accept $200, which is substantially more than what they are making in Mexico.

It is unclear how long this has been going on and how many U.S.-based trucking companies have purposely violated these rules. In the past, ICE and HSI has been counting on the trucking industry to self-regulate.

“We tend to put a lot of trust and confidence in the trucking industry that they’re going to follow the rules and apply the proper procedures as it’s dictated within the NAFTA rules,” Burrola said.

After October’s operation, that might come to an abrupt end in the Nogales area.

Greed and arrogance lead to demise of cabotage

Trucking companies in Nogales have been getting away with cabotage for several years. They were able to sustain illegal activities for so long by being discreet. After going undetected all these years, it appears owners of these trucking companies got a little too comfortable with the process.

As Burrola noted, agencies began noticing an uptick in B-1 drivers at the Southern border checkpoints around September 2017. Before, U.S.-based companies hiring illegal drivers were more conservative in the amount of B-1 drivers being used, allowing them to avoid detection. It is unclear what exactly happened, but Burrola believes greed and arrogance possibly led to the upsurge of B-1 drivers.

An association of Nogales truckers were put on notice in September 2017, including produce companies. Essentially, they were told the days of skirting cabotage rules were over. Trucking companies began making changes to their illegal techniques.

“And in making those changes, they just got egregious,” Burrola said. “They got greedy and they weren’t going to pay a U.S.-based driver.”

Once Border Patrol tipped off ICE Workforce Enforcement, companies were given notice of inspection, which includes inspections of I-9s (Employment Eligibility Verification Form). Discrepancies were noticed and the investigation continued.

Burrola admits that ICE is just now “cracking the shell” of cabotage violations. The agency is trying to piece together how companies are getting around national and international laws.


ICE operation sends shockwaves across Southwest

The Nogales operation was not some standard, run-of-the mill investigation. Burrola believes the aftermath of the operation was substantial. Trucking companies are more likely to start opening their eyes and deciding to do business the legal way.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a company in that area that’s going to try to do this again,” Burrola said. “I’m certain of that, because of the shock it applied to the produce industry along with the trucking industry. Everyone found out, everyone knew.”

Burrola said the investigation was being discussed in chat groups. Essentially, ICE sent a message, and that message was received.

To the best of his knowledge, Burrola said he is not aware of similar investigations in other parts of the U.S., but he emphasizes that companies violating NAFTA rules are all on notice. Nogales’ ICE Worksite Enforcement has shared tactical information with other ports.

“Our offices are aware of our success here in applying corrective action to the Worksite Enforcement program when it comes to the trucking industry,” Burrola said.

As for the trucking industry, truckers and trucking company owners can do their part as well. Much of the intel received came straight from truckers through ICE’s tip line. Drivers who have any information regarding illegal cross-border trucking are encouraged to call 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423). LL



Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.