According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “There were more than 2.8 million migrant encounters from January through August, 2023.” (USA Today, September 30, 2023).
Furthermore, CBP Chief Raul Ortiz said there have been an estimated 530,000 migrants that ‘got away’ since the beginning of the fiscal year 2023. (NY Post 5/10/2023).
Some of these individuals are MS-13 gang members, drug dealers, human traffickers, potential terrorists and individuals released from prisons in their home country. When they commit criminal acts in the U.S. it is a significant challenge for law enforcement to persuade them to tell the truth about their criminal behavior.
In this article, we will address several approaches that can be successfully utilized when questioning these individuals.
There obviously are differences in the approach to interviewing and/or interrogating U.S. citizens versus the foreign criminals referenced above. The U.S. citizen has 5 primary consequences that they are concerned about that the investigator needs to address so as to make it easier to develop the truth about the crime that they committed. Their primary concerns are:
- Loss of job
- Social standing
The illegal criminal who commits a crime in the U.S. may harbor one or more of the above fears but their paramount concern is being deported. Deportation could mean separation from their family, lack of financial means to return to the U.S., physical harm, or even potential death.
The investigator needs to address the suspect’s fear/concern of these potential consequences as well as establish empathy toward their situation.
These fears need to be openly addressed during the persuasion process in two phases.
Phase 1 – Compliment the individual for making it to the United States and stress the fact that while you do not condone their behavior you certainly understand their desire for a better life, “why you did it.” Point out some “benefits” as:
- Reunification with family
- A better standard of living
- Escaping persecution, violence, or a totalitarian regime
- Living in a free society
- Greater job/economic opportunities
- Greater medical care for your family
- Greater educational opportunities for your children
- Freedom to practice your religion
- A Better life for family
- Escaping natural disasters
Phase 2 – Shifting the Blame. Even though the investigator does not share the attitude of a suspect, it is important to make the suspect feel as though the investigator understands their plight. Suspects often shift the blame for their actions to anything that they feel would help to justify their criminal behavior. Interrogation themes when questioning migrant suspects should primarily focus on the attitudes of many migrant suspects who shift the blame to the U.S. for:
- Encouraging illegal immigration
- Inadequate border security which allows easy entry
- Relocating the subject and their family to a non-receptive, prejudiced area of the county or an unacceptable climate
- Allowing other foreign countries to not properly secure their borders making it easier to gain access to the U.S. border
- Media coverage showing the daily migration of thousands
Additionally, migrant suspects often blame the U.S. for its failure to provide:
- Adequate housing
- Adequate financial support
- Training skills – language, job skills
- Cultural support – acculturation
- Medical attention
- Child care
- Failure to locate other current family members in U.S.
These themes will address the suspect’s primary concern of being returned to their home country, especially if they have to return without their family.
Sergio brought his wife and two children into the U.S. illegally. They snuck in, with the help of traffickers. Sergio was simply looking for a better life for his family. He was able to avoid the U.S. Border Patrol with a group of migrants, some of his MS-13 friends and found their way to a small city to begin their dream life. He had served time for crimes in his home country, Mexico. Soon it became apparent that the transition to the U.S. was more challenging than he thought. He could not get a job and ended up committing an armed robbery so that he could feed his family. Sergio threatened a liquor store owner at knife point to give him all of the money in the cash register - $2,000. Fortunately, the owner was unharmed. Sergio was subsequently interviewed in Spanish by the police. Based on his statements during the interview, the subsequent investigation and the fact that the liquor store surveillance showed an individual matching Sergio’s description holding a knife on the store owner, he was interrogated.
Sergio’s elicitation tactics:
“Sergio, our investigation does indicate that you forced Sal at knife point to give you the money from the cash register - about $2,000. I’d like to sit down with you and see if we can get this cleared up. Okay?
“Let me say this Sergio, the liquor store owner is Okay and was not hurt by the knife because I don’t think that is what you wanted to do. I don’t think you wanted to harm anyone. All you wanted was some way to provide for your family. Since you’re here illegally, you have no one to turn to for help. All you were doing was to be a provider for your family and I get it. A father has three responsibilities for his family and children. You and I both know that because after talking to you I know we are very similar. We have to put food on the table, clothes on our loved ones’ backs and a roof over their heads. Right? Sometimes we are forced to do things out of character and I think that was your mindset when you took the money that you desperately needed.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in your situation who have told me that they are frustrated because they have no benefits like citizens have. They don’t speak the English language and don’t understand what people are saying, and since they can’t read documents which are all in English, they don’t know how to receive benefits. I’m sure you feel the same way. Many immigrants feel as though the U.S. left them with little or no support and timing was essential for them to provide for their family. I’m sure you feel the same way. You were told that when you came to the U.S., you’d be taken care of right? But you weren’t. I think you did this because you were desperate to take care of your family, right?
“Sergio, I think you were simply chasing the dream to provide a better life for your family, escaping persecution, threats, no jobs, and no medical care in Mexico. If I were in your shoes I’d want to leave a country like that too. It’s too bad that you didn’t have a better means of entry and provide an easy way to live here, right? Look Sergio, you’re not a bad guy, you just did a bad thing trying to provide for your family, right? I don’t condone what you did but I certainly understand and think some of your friends who don’t have your moral upbringing probably talked you into doing something like this.
“You know not long ago I was talking to an individual a lot like you…he did a stick-up too…but he shot and killed the guy. See, what I’m talking about. You’re being too hard on yourself. The money can be replaced, a life cannot. You know I’m right. This was simply a mistake in judgment, right?”
Once Sergio acknowledges that he committed the robbery, the investigator should obtain details to corroborate his statement. This would serve to validate a legally acceptable confession. Such details to obtain from Sergio would be:
- What were the denominations of the money?
- How much money does he have left?
- How much of the $2,000 did he spend and on what?
- Where did he obtain the knife?
- Describe the knife.
- Where is the knife now?
- Why did he choose Sal’s Liquors?
- Who else did he tell what he did?
- Who was with him, if anyone?
- “Have you told me the whole truth here today?”
For illegal immigrants who are involved in criminal activity, a viable tactic to elicit the truth would be to empathize how other migrants shift blame for their behavior onto the U.S. for the reasons outlined above and to psychologically minimize the suspect’s behavior by pointing out that he did not harm the victim which further validates the fact that he is not a “bad person.”
If the crime involves violence against an individual, blame that individual for their verbal or nonverbal behaviors provoking the subject…the subject had no intent to harm anyone but was reacting to what the “other guy” did.
When dealing with a criminal immigrant the investigator can always blame the attitude of many migrants that the U.S. does not properly explain our laws and does not offer any assistance to assimilate the individual into our country.
About the author
Louis C. Senese is VP of John E. Reid and Associates and has been employed for over 40 years. He’s conducted thousands of interrogations and volunteered assistance in cold cases. Listen to Lou interviewed on Thinbluetraining.com, podcast #4. He is the author of: “Anatomy of Interrogation Themes”, has written numerous articles for and posted on PoliceOne.com. He has presented hundreds of specialized training programs to federal, state and local law enforcement, military, federal and NATO intelligence agencies. He has taught throughout the U.S., as well as Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and the U.A.E. Contact Lou at Lsenese@reid.com