unaccompanied child migrants

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.

Breitbart’s awful article on Central American refugees

Usually, I don’t do this kind of post, but this article represented such an egregious trampling of journalistic principles that I thought I’d point it out. Here’s Breitbart’s lede:

An elite, law-enforcement sensitive El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) intel report from July 7, 2014 was leaked to Breitbart Texas and reveals that homicide rates in Central America suggest violence is likely not the primary cause of the surge of thousands of unaccompanied minors and incomplete family units illegally entering the United States.

So, the highest homicide rates in the world are not driving emigration from Central America. Sounds plausible. Please explain.

The leaked EPIC report discusses the motivational factors of the illegal immigrants in their choice to migrate to the United States:

(U//LES) In late May, the U.S. Border Patrol interviewed unaccompanied children (UAC) and migrant families apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley. Of the 230 total migrants interviewed, 219 cited the primary reason for migrating to the United States was the perception of U.S. immigration laws granting free passes or permisos to UAC and adult female OTMs traveling with minors. Migrants indicated that knowledge of permisos was widespread across Central America due to word of mouth, local, and international media messaging—prompting many to depart for the United States within 30 days of becoming aware of these perceived benefits, according to the same reporting.

Undoubtedly, a desire to reunify with family members and hopes of being granted asylum play a role in driving migration. But surely, if news of “permisos” had spread throughout Central America, so has the news about the extreme perils of the journey north and the oftentimes inhumane treatment of child migrants apprehended after entering the US. Would migrants really take these immense risks (many make multiple attempts) if the situation in their home countries weren’t absolute hellish?

But, the report essentially admits EPIC have no idea what they’re talking about:

Although EPIC lacks reliable reporting of Central American newspapers broadcasting the perceived benefits of U.S. immigration policies, several U.S. media outlets since June 2014 have identified Central American newspapers that have enticed minors to travel to the United States.

What does that even mean? EPIC “lack reliable reporting” on publicly-available Central American media reports? Media reports that are apparently broadcast so widely and regularly that their assertions about “free passes and permisos” are common knowledge among the general public in these countries, including children who are often too frightened of police and gang violence to even go to school?

Another thing Breitbart obscures is the fact that EPIC is a government agency. According to their report, “EPIC is a widely respected intelligence analysis group and was initially staffed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).” The report does mention that the government agencies “currently represented at” EPIC include the whole alphabet soup of law enforcement, including:

…Drug Enforcement Administration; Department of Homeland Security; Customs & Border Protection; Immigration & Customs Enforcement; U.S. Coast Guard; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Marshals Service; Department of Transportation; Internal Revenue Service; U.S. Department of the Interior; National Geospatial–Intelligence Agency; U.S. Department of Defense/IC; Joint Task Force–North; Joint Interagency Task Force–South; Texas Department of Public Safety; Texas Air National Guard; National Guard Counter Narcotics Bureau; Department of State; Bureau of Indian Affairs; Union Pacific Railroad Police; Kansas City Southern Railroad Police; El Paso Police Department; and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

In other words, this report was produced by an organization whose members and employees have a stake in continuing the drug war and increasing the militarization of the border. Unsurprisingly, their conclusion is that the problem is not a result of failed drug war policies that simply push violent criminals around the region without actually solving underlying issues.

According to EPIC, no real recalibration of US policies is necessary. We just need to make the kids more afraid of coming to the border than they are of staying in their crime- and violence-ravaged home countries. Or something:

EPIC assesses that UAC flow to the border will remain elevated until migrants’ misperceptions about US immigration benefits are changed. We further judge that this process could take the remainder of 2014 given the time needed for bi-lateral coordination efforts—such as information and enforcement campaigns in Mexico and Central America—to take hold.

Most independent research on the causes of migration from Central America, as well as a plethora of anecdotal reports, suggest that violence is one of the prime factors behind unaccompanied child migration. It’s quite disappointing (though not entirely surprising) that Breitbart would basically reprint misleading government propaganda regarding this issue.

Central American migration: “push” vs. “pull” factors

At the 27 June 2014 Central American Integration System (SICA) meeting, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera described the flight of emigrants and refugees (especially unaccompanied children) from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as “one of the greatest tragedies of our region…”

Read this piece in its entirety at Southern Pulse.

Meet the refugees from the War on Drugs

Over the past few weeks, the sudden explosion of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America entering the United States has received a lot of press. On June 2, President Obama announced that his administration was seeking congressional approval for an extra $1.4 billion in federal funding to help alleviate what he described as an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

According to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the number of “unaccompanied alien children” CBP “encountered” rose from 3,304 in fiscal year 2009 to over 46,000 so far in FY2014. Vox.com put together a helpful graphic to visualize the data:

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In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees CBP’s parent agency, pushed back against Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn’s suggestion that the desire for citizenship or reuniting with family members might be the driving force behind the recent surge. “I think it is primarily the conditions in the countries that they are leaving from,” Johnson said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) also recently implied that these immigrants are seeking to somehow take advantage of being in the US. “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America,” he said

This explanation seems highly suspect in light of the fact that total net migration from Latin America to the US has been in decline while deportations have been on the rise in recent years. Furthermore, the government’s treatment of immigrants can hardly be characterized as “lax.” The Obama administration’s harsh immigration, detention and deportation policies have sparked widespread criticism and even civil disobedience in the United States.

In attempting to reach the United States via Mexico, migrants from Central America of all ages undertake risks that include being abandoned, extorted, robbed, kidnapped, raped, enslaved and even accidentally dismembered along the way. In April of this year, hundreds of undocumented migrants from Central America marched on Mexico’s presidential residence to voice their demand that the country “ensure [their] right to free passage…without humiliation or violence, on [their] way to the northern border.”

After enduring harrowing journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles and after paying hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars to smugglers and criminals, many of these migrants – including an increasingly large number of children – reach the United States only to be apprehended, detained and eventually shipped back across the border.

Being detained after entering the United States, especially for children, can be just as traumatic as any other part of the trip. The infrastructure to deal with the recent influx of juvenile migrants simply doesn’t exist. Between 2008 and 2012, at least 1,366 children were illegally held in adult facilities for more than 72 hours. Conditions at overcrowded youth facilities sometimes border on inhumane. A number of migrants’ rights groups recently filed a joint complaint with DHS alleging extremely disturbing physical, psychological and sexual abuses suffered by unaccompanied migrant children at the hands of Border Patrol authorities.

Considering the extreme burdens and risks involved in attempting to unlawfully immigrate to the United States from Central America, one must ask why one would undertake such a treacherous passage. (Many try more than once.) Is the allure of life in the United States simply too much to resist, or is it “primarily the conditions in the countries that [migrants] are leaving from” that are behind the recent spike?

Let’s take closer look at three of the countries Vox and CBP highlighted – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. On top is the raw number of child migrants “encountered” by CPB from each country and below are the per capita rates:

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 2.26.13 AM

In 2009, Honduras underwent a coup supported by the United States, which installed a government whose economic policies have resulted in increased poverty and unemployment in addition to decreased economic growth and social spending. According to the CIA, Honduras has the eighth-worst wealth inequality in the world and more than half of the nation’s population lives in poverty.

According to the same agency, Guatemala sits only three places away from its neighbor as the eleventh most-unequal country on earth (also with a majority of its citizens in poverty.) El Salvador ranks thirtieth in inequality, with more than one-third of its population living in poverty. Unemployment in both El Salvador and Guatemala also remain relatively high.

But economic factors alone do not offer a complete explanation for the increase in child migration. Mexico too is highly unequal and has major problems with underemployment and poverty, but immigration by Mexican nationals has basically flatlined during the last few years.

Let’s look at some more data. Here’s the homicide rate in each country per 100,000 people, including Mexico:

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 12.17.40 AM

Mexico certainly isn’t bragging about its homicide rate of 15 or 20 per 100,000, but it’s fairly clear that the three countries that comprise the “Northern Triangle” are facing much higher levels of violence. In 2013, the Americas superseded Africa as the world’s most violent region, in large part due to crime-related killings in Central America. Last year San Pedro Sula, Honduras was named the “deadliest city in the world” for its murder rate of 169 per 100,000.

In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has linked the rising number of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle to the growth of crime-related violence in those countries, noting that “while the United States is receiving the majority of the new asylum claims, combined, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, documented a 712% increase in the number of asylum applications from citizens of these three countries.”

Considering this, something seems off about these charts:

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 12.21.18 AM

Despite markedly higher rates of violence in the Northern Triangle, those countries have received US security aid less than or proportional to what Mexico receives in recent years. Also, the State Department’s own estimates suggest that a large and increasing percentage of drugs and other illicit goods trafficked to the United States flow through the Northern Triangle. Yet anti-narcotics funding for those countries is once again less than or proportional to what Mexico has received:

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While the trend seems to be shifting toward providing more assistance to the Northern Triangle, the US government’s own estimates suggest that trafficking in the region is not declining and may even be increasing.

The US-led War on Drugs has not worked anywhere it has been tried in Latin America. It has only increased the profits of criminal groups, which allowed them to corrupt governments and security forces in order to more easily diversify into other nefarious sectors of the underground economy.

US-supported “free trade” pacts like NAFTA and CAFTA-DR have had devastating effects on some of the region’s most vulnerable groups of people. For those seeking to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families, legitimate economic opportunities can be rare. Joining the informal economy is often less a choice than a necessity.

Ironically, many refugees of these US-led efforts are fleeing to the very country that bears significant responsibility for their home nations’ plight. President Obama acknowledged that the influx of unaccompanied minors is a “humanitarian crisis” and Secretary Johnson recognized that these children were primarily being “pushed” from their home countries, not “pulled” to the US by “lax enforcement.” But there has been little attention paid to the root causes of the situation.

Spending more money on top of the tens of billions spent on militarizing the border and the War on Drugs without changing these fundamentally failed policies would be a mistake. The US should recognize that as the main belligerent in the War on Drugs, it bears responsibility for the refugees that war has created. Not only should we treat those refugees as such, but we should afford them the support and respect they deserve, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors.

For now, perhaps we have to accept that the behemoth prison-military-industrial complex won’t be felled by a wave of lone children from Central America pouring over the border. But every such moment of heightened attention is an opportunity to point to the broader issues behind the crisis of the moment and to offer criticisms and suggestions for improving the system.

What we cannot accept is locking them in cages and telling them, as one CBP officer allegedly said to a 17-year-old girl who fled Guatemala after being impregnated by a rapist and having her family subsequently threatened by gangsters, “Welcome to hell…We’re going to put you on a plane [back home], and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.”


* Data compiled from:





1. http://www.securityassistance.org/latin-america-and-caribbean/data/country/military/country/2001/2015/is_all/Latin%20America%20and%20the%20Caribbean

2. http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children