“The risks associated with smuggling children into the U.S. present a constant humanitarian threat,” ICE officials said in a statement. “The sponsors who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable for their role in these conspiracies.”
Some children reported being raped or held hostage by smugglers for more money. Others have been abandoned by smugglers as they try to cross the border.
Immigration advocates called the new enforcement policy a heartless way to try to reduce smuggling.
“It’s extremely cruel when you started shutting down refugee applicants and rescinding protections for children brought to the country at a young age, to send this kind of message to parents trying to get their kids to safety,” said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
Smuggling cases are among the most challenging to prove, and the biggest hurdle is identifying witnesses, who are likely to be undocumented and unwilling to help, according to Michael J. Wynne, who spent 12 years as an assistant United States attorney in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Targeting parents for re-entering the country illegally, rather than trying to go after them for smuggling, presents prosecutors with a higher likelihood of success.
“It’s a throwdown case,” he said. “You’re going to prosecute the crime where you get the biggest bang for your buck.”
Officials in ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division have been told to look for cases that can be brought to United States attorneys for possible prosecution, according to people familiar with the enforcement effort. Because prosecutions for illegal re-entry carry a five-year statute of limitations, ICE special agents are also looking to see if they can prosecute relatives of unaccompanied children for other immigration-related crimes, such as giving false statements, according to people familiar with the effort.
Convictions for illegal re-entry are politically popular among immigration restrictionists.
According to Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group at Syracuse University, illegal re-entry made up the bulk of prosecutions for illegal immigration for the past five years.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its plans to go after parents living in the country illegally who bring in their children.
Earlier this year, administration officials said that the thousands of children who arrived each year as unaccompanied minors would no longer be protected against deportation, reversing an Obama administration policy. John F. Kelly, then the Homeland Security secretary and now the White House chief of staff, wrote a memo in February saying parents would be subject to criminal prosecution if they had paid human traffickers to bring children across the border.
The children, who turn themselves in to the Border Patrol, are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. The office will either place the children in a shelter or release them to a family member. Immigration officials said most of the unaccompanied children apprehended at the border were eventually turned over to a family member, most often a parent, already living in the United States.
Homeland Security officials acknowledge that many of the children are fleeing violence in their home country, but they say that paying smugglers to transport them to the border endangers the children.
Interviews with immigration officials and court documents show numerous examples of children being exploited by smuggling organizations. Mexican authorities reported in July that they had rescued 147 Central American migrants, including 48 children, found abandoned in the wilderness in Veracruz State after a truck carrying them crashed.
And officials said that some of the money paid to smugglers found its way into the hands of drug cartels. In recent years, drug smuggling organizations have diversified their activities and now get a substantial portion of their revenue from human smuggling, officials said.
The drug trafficking organizations charge smugglers to cross through their territory. In some cases, the cartels abduct the migrants and hold them for ransom from parents in the United States or family back home.
If the money is not paid on time, the migrants, including children, are beaten or even killed, according to Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security Investigations officials who have investigated the cases. Two weeks ago, prosecutors in McAllen, Tex., sentenced the leader of one group to more than 30 years in prison for abducting a group of people who were in the country illegally and were being held at a stash house. The group was held at gunpoint, and their families were told to pay $2,000 to free them. After the families paid, the group was then turned over to other smugglers, who also demanded money for their release.
Even those who make it across the border face dangers, officials said.
In July, the police in San Antonio, responding to a call from a local Walmart, found dozens of undocumented immigrants inside a semitrailer parked in heat of more than 100 degrees. Ten of the 39 people found in or near the truck died, and others were hospitalized, some with brain damage. Among those found alive in the truck were two school-age children.
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