Who is extorting the families of child migrants detained in the US?

The New York Times just published a new report that adds to the long and lengthening list of horrors experienced by immigrants and their families:

The federal government is investigating how detailed information about migrant children being held at two American military bases wound up in the hands of con artists who are using it to lure unsuspecting relatives into paying hefty sums to reunite their families, preying on people who have been separated for years, according to the F.B.I.

Now, the F.B.I. says, swindlers have gotten hold of precise details about the children to reach out to their relatives across the country, claiming that payments are required to cover the processing costs and travel expenses of reuniting families. Cases of the fraud have been reported in 12 states so far, from New York to California, with the con artists seeking $350 to $6,000 in so-called fees, the F.B.I. says.

The leak of information is the latest setback in a saga that has compromised the Obama administration’s broader aspirations for an immigration overhaul. Investigators are trying to determine whether a federal database on the children was hacked, or if a contractor or government employee with access to information on the minors sold it to con artists, a government official familiar with the case said.

As the Times makes clear, the person or people responsible have yet to be identified. But, considering some of the information about US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that has been revealed recently, I think it’s reasonable to suspect some elements within the agency could have been involved.

Last month, a group of migrants represented by a number of non-governmental organizations alleged shocking instances of cruel treatment by CBP employees while in detention, including “physical and sexual abuse, verbal abuse, failure to provide medical treatment, mistreatment of infants and pregnant and nursing minors, inhumane detention conditions, due process concerns, and use of shackles.”

There have been other accusations of misconduct leveled against CBP. Latino Rebels reported a few weeks ago that a Honduran woman said she was held without being fed for three days at the McAllen Border Patrol Station, while she was in the third trimester of her pregnancy.

In one of the more disturbing recent episodes involving CBP, a 32-year-old agent by the name of Esteban Manzanares encountered three Honduran women – a mother and her two daughters – in southern Texas. He proceeded to rape the mother and slash her wrists, then he raped the 14-year-old daughter and attempted to kill her by breaking her neck. The mother and one of her daughters escaped, but Manzanares took the other girl back to his home where he kept her prisoner until the end of his shift. He sexually assaulted the girl once he came home, but reportedly committed suicide before authorities could find and arrest him.

That last case may be an extreme example of the apparent culture of CBP agents viewing migrants as less than human, but the bad behavior extends beyond agents’ treatment of migrants. Even US citizens have reported being harassed and intimidated by CBP agents. Todd Miller reported recently on the story of Shena Gutierrez, whose husband Jose Gutierrez Guzman was beaten so severely by CBP agents in 2011 that he suffered permanent brain damage.

Shena was “aggressively questioned and cuffed” by CBP after returning from a demonstration against CBP violence in Mexico. One of the agents dumped the contents of her purse onto the floor and “began to trample on her life, quite literally, with his black boots.” Shena was also subjected to invasive body cavity searches while in detention and currently faces charges for “refusing to leave government property.” (Miller’s article is not only well-reported and well-written, but also very moving. I highly recommend it.)

A report from the American Immigration Council released in May found that 97 percent of abuse complaints investigated internally by CBP ended with no disciplinary action taken. This culture of impunity seems to have endowed the Border Patrol with an attitude of omnipotence. Mexican newspaper El Universal reported last month that thousands of employees of CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were being investigated for ties to organized crime. According to InSight Crime;

Accusations against agents include protecting and escorting drug shipments, spying, and identifying informants, as well as trafficking drugs on behalf of Mexican criminal groups.

US border patrol officials have been accused of abusing migrants, facilitating human smuggling and trafficking weapons for cartels, in addition to aiding in drug trafficking operations.

Given all this, I would be thoroughly unsurprised if it turns out that CBP agents had sold the information used to extort families of detained migrants to criminals, or if they simply carried out the con job themselves. Whoever is responsible for these heinous and despicable acts should be ashamed, but if it was CBP agents, it would be basically par for the course.

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