The Brazilian bust of a smuggler who specialized in transporting Iranian migrants over the US southern border is auspicious because it occurs amid heightened American vigilance that Iran will carry out its threats of violent retaliation for the January 2020 US drone-strike killing of Top Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
By Todd Bensman as originally published September 22, 2020 by the Center for Immigration Studies
Most Americans might still be surprised to know that Iranians are among the tens of thousands of migrants who jump the US southern land border every year.
Perhaps fewer Iranians will be reaching that border now because Brazilian authorities recently busted Reza Sahami, a dual citizen of Canada and Iran who was caught guiding a group of seven Iranian nationals in the city of Assis Brasil on the border of Peru.
The Brazilian bust is auspicious because it occurs amid heightened American vigilance that Iran will carry out its threats of violent retaliation for the January 2020 US drone-strike assassination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani. Recent reporting had Iran plotting to assassinate the US ambassador to South Africa in retaliation for the Soleimani killing. President Trump has been touting the the Soleimani killing throughout his re-election campaign, no doubt aggravating the Iranians. Over the September 19 weekend, the guard’s website quoted Gen. Hossein Salami as saying, “Mr Trump! Our revenge for martyrdom of our great general is obvious, serious and real.”
No information points to border infiltration as a means for Iran to exact its revenge. Neither the ICE press release nor Brazilian media reporting quoted any official concerned that Iranian migrants might be traveling with retaliation orders.
But the timing of a joint US-Brazil operation that netted a smuggler of migrants from Iran — and the fact that the Americans and Brazilians are working so closely on cases like this — is at least very fortuitous.
Brazil is prosecuting but the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, which works in foreign posts throughout the Americas hunting human smugglers of people from Iran’s neck of the woods, played enough of a role to issue its own press announcement, which was largely ignored despite the heightened Iranian threat.
“Sahami has been smuggling criminals across international borders for over ten years,” said ICE Attaché for Brazil and Bolivia Robert Fuentes in the scarcely reported September 10 ICE press statement.
Brazilian media reported that a woman holding a Canadian passport also was arrested and that the six Iranian migrants were ordered to return to Iran within 15 days or face prosecution for possessing bogus passports from Israel, Denmark, and Canada.
The Significance of Iranian Border Migrants
Even before the Soleimani retaliation threat, American intelligence and law enforcement officers wanted to interview and investigate each and every Iranian who crossed the US land border. As I have frequently written, Iranians are among a long list of “extra-continental migrants” or “special interest aliens (SIAs)” from around the world who present unique national security threats. American homeland security workers are obliged, if they ever can, to rule out that they are threats once those travelers reach US borders.
Historically, an apprehended Iranian migrant might turn out to be either blessing or curse for US security.
The latent national security curse typically was not so much that an Iranian migrant would blow something up inside the United States but, rather, that they would be spies sent in that way to conduct espionage operations.
Conversely, a latent blessing is that some of these Iranian migrants might be genuine government abdicators willing to provide valuable intelligence on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Al Quds forces, which are US-declared Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
For some time into the foreseeable future, US homeland security will have no choice but to also consider the migrants in the light cast by the Iranian regime’s promises of retaliation.
How Many Iranians migrate to American Land Borders?
An intelligence community source familiar with the case tells me the Sahami organization flew Iranians into Canada on fake passports but also had some smuggled over the southern border. It’s unclear if Sahami’s clients reached the US by flying first into Canada and crossing south or, if so, how many.
But apprehension data shows that far more Iranians are apprehended at the US-Canada border than at the US-Mexico border. Just 197 Iranians were apprehended at or between southern border ports of entry from 2009–2019, including 15 in 2019, 27 in 2018 and 16 the year before that, according to data provided to CIS under a Freedom of Information Act request. Far more Iranians are apprehended crossing at or between US-Canada ports of entry, to include 22,789 from 2008–2018, increasing from 1,523 in 2013 to 2,294 in 2018.
Regardless of whether some are flown to Canada so they can promptly cross that less guarded American border, their steady arrivals every year at both frontiers demonstrate the presence and capability of long-haul smuggling organizations like the one Sahami allegedly ran and that disrupting them must now become a priority.
A Vital New Counterterrorism Partnership with Brazil
The Sahami case reinforces another important development in the American-led hunt for SIA smugglers: Brazil’s reinvigorated counterterrorism collaboration under the presidency of Jair Bolsanaro. As I’ve written, Brazil has long served the smugglers as one of the busiest landing and staging areas for special interest alien migration due to corruption in its embassies and airports. But with Bolsanaro in office and new counterterrorism and counter-smuggling laws on Brazil’s books, ICE and CBP have ramped up their presences there.
The Sahami case was Brazil’s second significant bust and prosecution of an international SIA smuggler alongside the Americans, though that government has assisted past American prosecutions. The first came in August 2019 when Brazilian federal police in Sao Paulo rolled up three notorious smugglers: a Somali, an Algerian, and an Iranian based in the country. As I wrote at the time of this bust, the smugglers were transporting immigrants from countries of national security concern to the US southern border for years, including two Somalis arrested by the Americans for suspected terrorism.
Indeed, the Brazil-US partnership appears to humming right along. In 2019, US Customs and Border Protection and Brazil’s federal police opened a joint pilot program inside the country’s airports to identify high-risk “travelers with links to terrorism…and alien smuggling” coming and going, according to a recent State Department report. And Brazil has sent officers to work with CBP in Washington.