On the Wire

Arizona tracks Western Union wire transfers to thwart immigrant smugglers.

by / August 31, 2005
Arizona law enforcement officials, under the provisions of recently passed legislation, have the power to investigate profits from alleged immigrant smuggling. A new task force created by the legislation to fight smuggling now uses specialized software to analyze data documenting Western Union financial transfers of amounts greater than $750, looking for evidence of smuggling.

The goal is to paralyze the prolific illegal trade crossing the 389-mile Mexico-Arizona border. Although the exact numbers are unknown, the illegal immigration problem has reached crisis proportions in recent years.

During 2004, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 384,000 individuals in Arizona as suspected illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol reports that between 1,500 and 2,000 undocumented aliens are stopped each day in just the Tucson area during the peak season. Some estimate as many as 2 million sneak into the United States each year through Arizona alone.

Trapping Coyotes
Typically, immigrants wanting to enter the United States illegally pay a smuggler, known as a coyote, to arrange for their passage.

Today, the cost of a journey from Mexico averages $1,600 per person. For hopefuls living south of Mexico, the fee skyrockets to $6,400. It's not unusual for a coyote to earn $40,000 per week. All too often, death in the desert awaits those attempting a crossing without a coyote acting as a guide. Just during the first half of July 2005, 21 illegal immigrants dies from heat exhaustion while crossing the desert, where summer temperatures often soar to highs of 120 degrees.

Coyotes prefer Western Union transfers as the payment method because those transfers aren't easily traceable. Prior to the powers given to law enforcement by the new legislation, coyotes remained anonymous because of the astounding number of transactions Western Union handles.

According to the 2004 fourth-quarter report issued by Western Union's parent company, First Data Corp., an estimated 420 Western Union transactions occur every minute each day -- amounting to an average of seven transfers every second of the year.

In 2000, Arizona began working on legal issues related to illegal immigration, said Andrea Esquer, spokeswoman of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. Controlling the mass migration of illegal immigrants across U.S. borders became an even higher priority after 9/11. In August 2004, Arizona adopted the controversial legislation, falling under Title 13, Chapter 39 of the Arizona Criminal Code.

The bill created a task force consisting of members of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the state's Department of Public Safety. Under the auspices of the task force, the operation has since frozen approximately $10 million, stinging smugglers in the pocketbook.

Of that dollar amount, roughly 10 percent to 15 percent was returned to legitimate owners who could prove they were not associated with illegal activities.

How the Operation Works
Esquer declined to comment on the technical specifics of the computer analysis tools and process utilized because disclosing such details could potentially jeopardize the operation.

In general, investigators serve Western Union with court subpoenas requesting data relating to senders and recipients of wire transactions in amounts of $750 or more during a certain time period.

Investigators use computer analysis tools to sift through the data, looking for suspicious patterns. When shady transactions are found, a court order allowing seizure of the money is obtained.

Law enforcement officials investigate each transaction and notify the parties involved. If a person can prove that he or she is not involved in illegal activity, the money is released. The process should take less than 72 hours, although there have been complaints of significantly longer turnaround times.

The Attorney General's Office has a 24-hour phone line, and offers Spanish-speaking detectives to assist the Spanish-speaking population.

Whatever money found to be associated with illegal activity is seized and then deposited into a revolving fund that helps fund the agencies involved in the operation.

Invasion of Privacy?
Arizona officials said the operation has lessened coyote activity, as well as associated crime and violence.

Still, the operation draws strong criticism from those who don't believe government has the authority to confiscate private citizens' money and hold it until their innocence is proven.

Observers also suggest the Arizona law may raise legal issues concerning interference with interstate commerce and with federal banking laws.

Esquer claims the court-issued seizure warrant does not constitute an invasion of privacy. "We must apply for seizure warrants through the courts -- and we must explain to the courts what we are trying to achieve, and how we are going to achieve our goal," she said, comparing the process of detaining funds to luggage searches at an airport.

"Luggage is searched for safety precautions, and you are allowed to continue your journey unless you have an illegal substance in your luggage," she said.

While Esquer admits that the Attorney General's Office has received complaints, she insists they've worked to resolve them.

Emil J. Molin, of the Molin Law Firm in Tucson, however, argues that the attorney general's operation impacts innocent people.

Molin objects to providing information to the Attorney General's Office about money paid to him for legal services. He also said he no longer accepts Western Union transfers as payment.

"This is very difficult for family members and friends of detained aliens who may wish to retain my services to represent the detained alien, but do not have bank accounts that are necessary to pay in other manners."
Leslie Friesen Contributing Writer