The Trump administration has begun a new surge of immigration enforcement targeting parents who have paid to have their children illegally brought to the United States.
The recent arrests, which had been largely rumored but not confirmed until now, have set off a new wave of confusion and fear through immigrant communities that have already been subject to greater enforcement.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have begun sharing information with immigration agents about U.S.-based relatives of unaccompanied children. The information is being used to track down the parents, according to lawyers and government case workers familiar with the practice.
Parents of the children report receiving surprise knocks on their door by immigration agents — sometimes the day after their children arrive — asking about their children and demanding that they be let in, according to government case workers. Once the parents open the door or leave the house they are detained.
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“The kids are basically being used as bait at this point,” said a field specialist with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency that takes custody and shelters unaccompanied immigrant children.
The field specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the office began receiving calls over the weekend from scared and confused parents who had received similar visits. The field specialist knows of at least four cases in which parents have been targeted.
Immigration lawyers report at least a dozen cases from Texas to New Jersey.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed Thursday that they have begun a new enforcement initiative to “disrupt and dismantle” human-smuggling facilitators, including arresting the sponsors who have paid criminal organizations to smuggle children into the United States. They did not say what charges were being applied.
“ICE aims to disrupt and dismantle end-to-end the illicit pathways used by transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling facilitators,” said Jennifer Elzea, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “As such, we are currently conducting a surge initiative focused on the identification and arrest of individuals involved in illicit human smuggling operations, to include sponsors who have paid criminal organizations to smuggle children into the United States.”
Immigration officials cited Office of Refugee Resettlement statistics on Thursday that show approximately 90 percent of all unaccompanied children encountered at the southwest border are eventually turned over to a family member residing in the United States.
The Trump administration warned in February that the thousands of children who arrive each year as unaccompanied minors would no longer be protected against deportation, and their parents would be subject to criminal prosecution if they had paid human traffickers to bring their children across the border.
In February, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued new orders to agency heads that would considerably expand the number of immigrants who could be detained and deported.
One of the memos said 155,000 unaccompanied children have been detained in the past three years.
“The surge of illegal immigration at the southern border has overwhelmed federal agencies and resources and has created a significant national security vulnerability to the United States,” Kelly wrote in the memorandums, copies of which were first published by McClatchy.
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families have been apprehended since 2014, when a surge of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty raced into the Rio Grande valley in Texas.
It is common for parents who are in the U.S. illegally to pay human smugglers to arrange for their children to be brought to the United States and dropped off at the border.
Unaccompanied children are turned over to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which will either care for them in a shelter or release them to a family member. The children who are meeting relatives typically know they must turn over contact information to Border Patrol officials so the information can be verified.
The Obama administration limited deportations to recent arrivals and people with criminal convictions. But the Trump administration has cast a much wider net, expanding the definition of a criminal immigrant. The administration says it is focusing on enforcing the law and targeting those with criminal convictions, but will also not hesitate to detain others they come in contact in the process.
Responding to criticism that recent enforcement has caused fear in the community and separated families, ICE Director Tom Homan said Wednesday that people in the U.S. illegally shouldn’t feel comfortable. As for families being separated, Homan said the parents put themselves in that position when they come to the United States illegally.
“Look, if we don't have border security, if we don't enforce the laws written in the books, you're never going to control the border,” Homan said. “Why do you think we got 11 million to 12 million people in this country now? Because there has been this notion that if you get by the Border Patrol, you get in the United States, you have a U.S. citizen kid, no one is looking for you. But those days are over.”
Case workers with ORR have raised concerns with their bosses that the information provided to them is being used for enforcement. They’ve been told that there is no evidence of that, and that they should not give their clients any legal advice.
Immigration lawyers called the practice of rounding up the sponsors “cruel and morally outrageous.” The sponsors, whether parents or aunts or uncles, often care for the children while they wait for their cases to come up in court. They also cover the costs of caring for the children, who will have to remain in government custody if the sponsors are detained or deported.
“Parents who do what they can to protect their kids, are now going to have to think twice about risking their own future here in order to help their loved ones survive,” said Niloufar Khonsari, an Immigration Attorney and executive director of California-based Pangea Legal Services.
An ICE official said that financial data and investigative records reviewed by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations have shown that the family members and other sponsors receiving custody of these children have engaged the services of criminal human smuggling organizations to bring their children to the United States.
“Countless examples demonstrate the inherent risks and direct harm that has been done to children as a result of these illicit smuggling operations,” the official said.
The official gave several examples, including a May 2016 vehicle crash during a smuggling venture in North Texas that resulted in the death of an illegal immigrant and injuries to two smuggled unaccompanied children, including a knee injury and lacerations to the face. A 12-year-old Ecuadoran girl committed suicide in March 2014 after suffering from repeated sexual assaults at the hands of her smugglers, the official said.
Leon Fresco, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil division under President Barack Obama, said the Trump administration is opening itself to lawsuits. Federal rules limit the time children can be detained.
“This is now the beginning of what is likely to be a further and further expansion away from targeted enforcement and more toward a general population enforcement,” Fresco said.
The new initiative has the potential to affect thousands of children who arrived in the United States as “unaccompanied minors” and were subsequently reunited with a parent living in the country illegally.
“This is messing with my moral compass,” said the field specialist with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. “I don’t want to be a part of it. We’re telling families we don’t work with immigration, but we can’t deny the fact that CBP is setting this up.”