Arizona continues to pay a heavy price for the federal government's failure to secure the border and fix our broken immigration system. We have literally hundreds of drop houses here in the Valley, which operate as way stations for criminal smuggling operations often run by dangerous Mexican cartels. They're magnets for violent crime, and they threaten the safety of our community.

The Phoenix metropolitan area is believed to have as many as 1,000 drop houses, many of which are home to human smuggling operations. Crime associated with the drop houses is significant. Phoenix experiences approximately 300 kidnappings a year.

Recently, I visited a Valley drop house and saw where smugglers had kept victims behind barred doors and windows, all while they extorted money for their release. I also visited another home in the same neighborhood, the site of a drug-cartel kidnapping, where smugglers had begun digging a grave for one of their captives, right there inside the house.

That's why I introduced a bi-partisan bill, along with Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), to help combat the drop house epidemic. The Stop the Drop Houses Act, H.R. 5769, would close a federal loophole and allow authorities to use civil forfeiture to seize homes used as drop houses. Under current law, civil forfeiture can be used to seize other property used to facilitate smuggling crimes, such as vehicles or even airplanes. However, civil forfeiture cannot be used against the actual homes used as drop houses. The bill would not change the existing "innocent owner's defense" against civil forfeiture.

The crime and violence associated with drop houses and illegal drug cartels is why, back in February of 2008, I asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, to investigate Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) efforts to shut down these drop houses and stop the illegal smuggling. The results of the two-and-a-half-year investigation were released recently, at a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing.

Specifically, the GAO recommended closing the federal loophole to allow authorities to use civil forfeiture to seize homes that are used as drop houses in order to improve ICE's efforts to combat alien smuggling.

This is exactly what my new bill, the Stop the Drop Houses Act, would do. It would give an important additional tool to authorities to shut down these drop houses, combat violent crime associated with illegal immigration, and help keep our community safe.

Rep. Harry E. Mitchell is a native Arizonan and lifelong resident of Tempe. He was elected to Congress in 2006 in Arizona's 5th District, which includes Ahwatukee Foothills. He serves on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Committee on Science and Technology and Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

 

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