Senate Sends Gabrielle Giffords Anti-Drug Trafficking Bill to President

Legislation championed by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and carried in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Dean Heller (R-NV), to crack down on drug smugglers on the Southwest border has cleared the Senate and will now be sent to President Obama to be signed into law.

The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act will improve border security by cracking down on smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to traffic drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. The measure overwhelmingly passed the House on Wednesday during an emotional farewell tribute to Rep. Giffords, who resigned as a Member of Congress to focus on rehabilitation.

“I have no doubt that Gabby will return to public service stronger than ever, and her final legislative success as a member of this Congress is a testament to her long commitment to strengthening our border and fighting drug trafficking,” said Senator Tom Udall, a member of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. “With these new tools, law enforcement will be able to better prosecute the criminals who smuggle millions of pounds of narcotics into our communities every year. I hope President Obama will make it the law of the land without delay” Udall said.

“This legislation gives law enforcement the authority it needs to make sure drug traffickers receive the penalties they deserve,” said Heller. “I was honored to work with Gabby Giffords on this legislation in the House and am pleased that the Senate has continued to follow her leadership. I hope the President signs this bill into law quickly so the brave men and women trying to crack down on illicit drug trafficking can get to work prosecuting smugglers to the fullest extent of the law.”

Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are also original cosponsors of this legislation.

“Smugglers are increasingly relying on the use of ultralight aircraft to traffic illegal drugs into our country,” Bingaman said. “This bill gives law enforcement the authority to more aggressively prosecute drug smugglers using ultralight aircraft.”

“The criminal penalties for bringing drugs into the United States should be the same no matter the method — whether smugglers use airplanes or ultralight vehicles. This bill will help to keep illegal drugs out of California,“ said Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. “I was pleased to co-sponsor this legislation and honored to send the Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act to President Obama so he can sign Gabby’s bill into law.”

“Congresswoman Giffords always put her constituents before all else. She fought tirelessly to do right by Arizona, strengthen its security, and keep her state safe,” Gillibrand said. “This bill is the right thing to do to honor my dear friend Gabby’s incredible record of fighting for Arizona, and it’s the right thing to do to fight the scourge of drug trafficking along America’s southern border.”

Every year, hundreds of ultralight aircraft (ULAs) are flown across the southern border and each can carry several hundred pounds of narcotics. ULAs are small, single-seat aircraft that are favored by smugglers because they are inexpensive, relatively quiet and can fly at night without lights. They are often able to evade radar detection and can drop a load of narcotics in the U.S. and return to Mexico without ever landing in this country. To see video of an actual drug-drop by an ultralight aircraft, recorded for National Geographic’s “Border Wars,” click here. For a photo of an ultralight aircraft used in drug smuggling, click here.

Under existing law, ULAs are not categorized as aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, which means they do not fall under the aviation smuggling provisions of the Tariff Act of 1930.

The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2011:

  • Gives law enforcement agencies additional tools to combat this type of drug trafficking by closing a loophole in current law that allows smugglers who use ULAs to receive a lesser penalty than those who use airplanes or cars;
  • Establishes the same penalties for trafficking, whether by plane, automobile or ULA – of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine;
  • Adds an attempt and conspiracy provision to the aviation smuggling law to allow prosecutors to charge people other than the pilot who are involved in aviation smuggling;
  • Directs the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Homeland Security to collaborate in identifying equipment and technology to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection detect ULAs.

Recent news reports have shown that Mexican organized crime groups are increasingly using ULAs to drop marijuana bundles in agricultural fields and desert scrub across the U.S. border. The Los Angeles Times reported in May that the number of incursions by ultralights reached 228 in the last federal fiscal year, almost double from the previous year. Last August, an ultralight vehicle crashed in the bootheel of New Mexico carrying 134 pounds of marijuana.

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