New York Times
By Caitlin Dickerson
July 01, 2017
The Trump administration has begun a new tactic to crack down on illegal immigration, this time arresting undocumented parents suspected of having paid to have their children ushered into the country by smugglers.
When unaccompanied children are apprehended at the border — often after having been taken there by smugglers — immigration officials initiate cases for their deportation, a process that can take months or years. In the meantime, many of those children are placed with parents or relatives who crossed earlier to establish a foothold in the United States and earn money to send back home.
Until recently, those adults have not been priorities for arrest, even if they are in the country illegally.
But in February, President Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, signed a memo promising to penalize people who pay smugglers to bring their children to the United States, saying that the agency had “an obligation to ensure that those who conspire to violate our immigration laws do not do so with impunity.” This past week, Jennifer D. Elzea, the deputy press secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed that arrests had begun.
In some cases, parents or other relatives who have taken in undocumented children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and the prospect of prison; in other cases, they will be placed in deportation proceedings along with the children. The administration said the arrests would deter families from putting children in the hands of smugglers for dangerous journeys through regions controlled by drug cartels.
Though the American authorities have long sought to arrest human smugglers, sometimes known as coyotes, they had not paid much attention to the relatives paying the smuggling fees, until now. Parents and others “who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable,” Ms. Elzea said.
The effort drew immediate criticism from immigrant advocates because it would separate families, including many that had fled violence or poverty.
It would also discourage parents from claiming custody of their children when they arrived in the United States, the advocates said. That could lead to more children being sent to juvenile immigrant detention centers, where those with no identifiable family in the United States are often held.
“It’s punishing parents for trying to save their children’s lives,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “And it’s endangering the children in the process.”
Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency would try to find other relatives to place children with before sending them to the detention centers.
The operation is the latest phase of Mr. Trump’s ramped-up immigration enforcement. Shortly after he was inaugurated, he rescinded guidelines put in place by President Barack Obama that sought to limit arrests to those with serious criminal convictions. Apprehensions soared 38 percent during the first three months of his presidency compared with the same period last year.
The administration did not say how many parents had been arrested, and immigration advocates said that based on reports from lawyers, they did not think many had been.
But the effort could put hundreds, if not thousands, in jeopardy of arrest.
Unaccompanied children began to flood the southern United States border three years ago, when 68,541 were detained after fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Since Mr. Trump took office, border crossings have plummeted to their lowest numbers in decades, possibly a result of his threats to arrest and deport greater numbers of undocumented immigrants.
Even so, from February through May, 5,445 children were detained after crossing the border unaccompanied by adult relatives, according to Customs and Border Protection, and a majority of those have wound up reunited with parents or other relatives.
A Salvadoran immigrant who gave only his first name, Jose, because he feared prosecution said in an interview Friday that he and his wife had come to the United States more than a decade ago, and that, as many young couples from their village did, they had left their toddler son, Henry, behind with relatives.
When Henry turned 13, gang members began to court him and threaten him for not joining them. In 2014, Jose wired money to a friend in El Salvador who said he knew of a coyote who could take Henry to the United States. “It’s impossible to do without help,” Jose said. “My son didn’t know the way, and it was dangerous.”
Jose said that he himself had feared being apprehended when he went to pick up Henry from a government facility after he was detained. But Jose was not — at least not then.
“I was worried, but my bigger worry was that my son would not be safe in El Salvador,” he said. “To stay there would have been fatal.”
Children often arrive in the United States with addresses and phone numbers of parents or other relatives written on paper. Before now, those relatives would usually not be arrested, even if they were undocumented, unless they had committed a crime.
But the Trump administration considers that practice as winking at the relatives’ illegal status.
The operation to arrest sponsors of unaccompanied minors is being coordinated by Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE that investigates fraud and other crimes. It was unclear how often parents would be criminally prosecuted as opposed to being placed in deportation proceedings. Prosecutions could send a tougher message but also require more time and effort.
Immigrant advocates questioned whether parents seeking to be reunited with their children could be convicted of a crime, and instead viewed the effort as an attempt to draw headlines.
“This seems to me to be a fear-mongering propaganda move that is poorly thought out and not in the best interests of the children,” said Lenni Benson, who directs the New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project, which provides legal representation to unaccompanied minors.
Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general who oversaw American military operations in Central and South America from 2012 to 2016 as head of the United States Southern Command, has a longstanding interest in combating human smuggling. In April, he reiterated his vow to pursue the smugglers, many of whom extort their clients by demanding exorbitant sums, or resort to kidnapping or violence.
“There is nothing the attorney general and I want more than to put human smugglers out of business,” Mr. Kelly said in a speech at the San Ysidro border crossing in California. “And we will do everything in our power — and within the law — to end the flow of illegal migration.”
His department pointed to several instances in which smugglers had endangered children’s lives in car crashes and overheated truck holds where the migrants were hidden during their journeys. One investigation found that a 12-year-old Ecuadorean girl had committed suicide after smugglers sexually assaulted her.
Cristiane Rosales-Fajardo, a community organizer in New Orleans who works with Hondurans there, said she knew of many parents who had paid $2,500 to $4,000 to coyotes to smuggle a child into the United States. “Some hadn’t seen them since they were newborns,” she said.
Because of the violence in Honduras, Ms. Rosales-Fajardo said, the parents believed that entrusting their children with smugglers was a better option. “The parents wanted to make sure their children were safe,” she said.
Follow Caitlin Dickerson on Twitter @itscaitlinhd.
Miriam Jordan and Liz Robbins contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on July 2, 2017, on Page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Trump Administration Targets Parents in New Immigration Crackdown.
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