Federal law makes it a crime to help bring someone into the United States who is not a U.S. citizen. The law contains two very broad provisions on this matter, with the result that the alien smuggler can face punishment regardless of whether he or she was acting for profit or not, or to help his or her own family or relations.
The statutes in question come from the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act. (I.N.A.), including §§ 274(a)(1)(a) and 274 (a)(2) (also at 8 U.S.C. § 1324).
I.N.A. Section 274(a)(1)(a) says that anyone who helps bring or attempt to bring a noncitizen into the U.S. at some nondesignated place without inspection by a U.S. official at a border, port, or other point of entry, is committing a crime. Escorting someone across the desert is the classic violation of this section. The mode of transport doesn't matter; the law criminalizes smuggling action that takes place "in any manner whatsoever."
Penalties under Section 274(a)(1)(a) can include a fine under under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, a prison term of up to ten years, or both. The punishment gets multiplied by the number of people smuggled. If someone gets injured as a result of the crime, the penalty can be increased to a 20-year prison term; and if someone dies as a result, the prison term can be extended to life.
Section 274(a)(2) makes it a crime to, knowingly or in reckless disregard of the fact that the person lacks prior official authorization to enter or live in the U.S., bring or attempt to bring that person into the country. (A failed crime is still a crime under this section.) In this case, it doesn’t even matter whether the person brings the noncitizen to an official entry point or not. Attempting to smuggle someone through a checkpoint in the trunk of one's car would likely be prosecuted under this section. Penalties can include a fine under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, a prison term of up to one year, or both. Again, the penalties can be multiplied by the number of violations.
Although bringing the noncitizen straight to an immigration officer for inspection does not excuse the person from culpability for a criminal act, it can reduce the penalties. (Why would someone go straight to an immigration officer,? It has primarily been tried as a mechanism to help noncitizens seeking political asylum, which is a remedy that one can request upon entering the United States.) The penalty for not bringing the person straight to a checkpoint is as much as ten years in prison.
And although commmercial or financial gain is not required in order to be found guilty under this law, it too can increase the penalty – to at least three and up to ten years in prison. The same penalty applies to someone who violates this section knowing that the noncitizen planned to commit an offense punishable by more than one year in prison.
Repeat offenders under this section may receive more severe punishments. If it’s the person’s third or subsequent offense, the penalty becomes imprisonment of between five and 15 years.
The offender can also be made to give up any boat, car, plane, or other vehicle or aircraft used in the crime, and to forfeit any money or other proceeds earned in the course of the crime.