SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Like the gold rushes of yesteryear, the ongoing population transfer from Central America over the U.S. southern border, which is emptying whole Guatemalan villages, started with a nugget of news about an irresistible discovery in America. After building for several years, word quickly spread in the fall of 2018 and spawned gold fever. The discovery was that the U.S. immigration system had this catch-and-release loophole only for parents with children. Those in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who reach the southern border with at least one biological child under 18 and start an asylum claim (for which most are ineligible) would breeze through a short detention anyway to live in the land of prosperity, forever, not least because the U.S. government is loath to deport families in front of television cameras.
Monica Mapel, HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge, San Antonio, spoke at length to CIS about what she terms the "faux family" scheme.
By January 2019, every child of Central America was a prized Golden Ticket to a lifetime in America, with a premium get-out-of-detention-free card. Unverified stories, rumors really, began swirling among Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and the media that some of the children didn't belong to the adults claiming them, that they were being "recycled" back and forth over the border with different paying adults, or even kidnapped for the crossing. The term "rent-a-kid" circulated with implications that a terrible, commoditized child abuse was making this economic migrant rush on the border possible.
Some of the rumors of fake families made prima facie sense if only because corruption soon finds all commodities that suddenly spike high in value.
With current monthly economic migrant entry rates now projecting out to about a million Central Americans per year at current pace, one of the most frequently presented arguments for congressional and White House intervention is the humanitarian cost in lives lost, suffering, and travel jeopardy, especially for the children of low-income parents unwilling to resist the loophole opportunity.
So in about April, ICE finally set out to quantify the rumors of fake families, map the problem scope, and more systematically prosecute culprits as part of any broader deterrence strategy. DHS tasked its southern border Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) field offices to beef up teams of investigators and intelligence analysts for the new focus.
As further impetus, an ICE pilot program for rapid DNA tests in Texas showed that 30 percent of those tested were not related to the children they claimed were their own. Border Patrol officials in April claimed they had identified 3,000 fraudulent family unit cases in the previous six months.
In a strategic part of Texas, the job of leading the effort has fallen to HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Monica Mapel, a 32-year veteran investigator with the agency. Mapel's selection was based on her experience supervising an immigration benefits document fraud task force, human smuggling, and, once, a child-exploitation program. Those tactics in those crimes bear similarities to how "faux families," as Mapel has coined them, were thought to be scheming their way over the border. Mapel also is at epicenter; the HSI San Antonio field office encompasses 500 miles of Texas-Mexico border, 58 counties and two federal judicial districts.
Last week, HSI leadership granted a Center for Immigration Studies request to interview Mapel about her "faux families" initiative on condition that active case information not be disclosed.
From experience investigating complex human smuggling organizations, she started out running some database checks and soon found a telling anomaly. Whereas the norm of her three decades' experience was that few single male border entrants ever were accompanied by young children, at least 50 percent of whom were arriving with a child now, or sometimes with a young adult posing as a child.
"That's never happened before," she said.
She saw this as an indicating clue that something wrong was happening on a large scale, how large she and other government agencies are not quite finished estimating. Putting a number or percentage on the problem remains a challenge because such high volumes of people have already been passed through to the U.S. interior and, in the crush, processes are only now going into place to more reliably detect and record faux families as they enter.
Mapel's team has, however, collected a growing pool of lead referrals that have spawned active investigations moving toward indictments. In their totality, the lead referrals and investigations have informed HSI San Antonio about some of the most common tactics and methods of the faux family schemes, what appears to be happening, and what likely is not. Following are some key takeaways from the CIS interview with Mapel about her "faux families":
1) No evidence has emerged in Mapel's experience in South-Central Texas that children are being "recycled" to and from Mexico on a significant scale.
Initial rumors had it that teens or teen-looking adults were being hired out to pose as the child of an unrelated adult long enough for both to process in over the border. After release from detention days later, the teens return to Mexico and repeat other transactions under a different names. But Mapel said her team has found no evidence that such recycling is happening in her area, though she has not ruled out that it has happened, and she has seen reporting where Border Patrol agents elsewhere have documented adolescents who have made more than one entry with different adults.
"My eyes are open to everything, but that's not what I'm seeing," she said.
2) No evidence has emerged that smugglers or economic migrants are kidnapping children to exploit the asylum loophole. Instead:
3) Most faux family situations seem to derive from smuggling deals struck in home countries like Honduras and Guatemala and involve biological parents.
Mapel said human smugglers or brokers in home countries cut package deals where a parent provides a child (especially if parents have more than one) to a child-less migrant for a fee or an in-kind reduction in the real parent's own smuggling fee. Such packages can reach $7,000 for transportation, food, doctored birth certificates, and the child.
"If you have children to spare during your trip to the U.S., your trip is not as expensive," she explained.
The child, real parent, unrelated adult client, and smuggler often make the trip together. Only at the border is the child and bogus birth certificate given over to the paying migrant, who is expected to return the child days or weeks later once everyone is inside the United States.
"I have current examples where they (the unrelated adult male) had never met them (the child) until the transportation to the U.S. began," Mapel said, recounting that some involved have revealed: "'I have no idea who the child is. I never met him before until I got on the transport. The child was given to me and the birth certificate was provided. The mom was on the bus.'"
Three circumstances are key to the success of this form of the scheme, which appears to be the most common.
- The child must be accompanied by a birth certificate required at the border. Sometimes authentic birth certificates can be secured with a bribe. More often, though, the documents are doctored. What is needed is the child's real first name coupled to the last name of the paying adult client, whose full go-by name also is on the document. The correct name of a real parent is on the birth certificate too. A correct first name of the child is necessary, Mapel said, because once in American custody, "Obviously, if the child is able to talk, you want to be able to call Joe, 'Joe,' and Joe is answering to Joe when he is encountered by government officials."
- The true parent must separate from their loaned child and fake parent at the border and enter at a later time and distance because, as Mapel pointed out, "You don't want mom to be in-country and processing at the same time and then baby goes 'hey mommy!' and runs to her."
- All of the involved parties must successfully enter the country and reunite as planned, the part of the process where a child is most prone to harm and abuse.
To best maintain a ruse where the child is unable to blow the cover, Mapel said, young children are preferred, especially infants and toddlers who can't answer questions or make mistakes. Border Patrol has often reported the arrival of single men carrying infants without baby formula, bottles, diapers or any other accoutrements indicating infant caretaking.
"I think it's because they (a young child) won't make a mistake in a facility. To them, it's just a trip. They clearly have no idea what's happening," Mapel said.
Earlier this month, in perhaps the first prosecution of a faux family border crosser, authorities in Texas charged a previously deported Honduran man with alien smuggling after he illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with an unrelated six-month-old baby. The man presented a birth certificate for the child that authorities were able to learn was fraudulent.
It is at the point of border entry, Mapel said, that the child is victimized and open to harm – by potentially weeks of separation from the real parent or guardian, by being at the mercy of a non-parent and possible stranger in detention and for some time after release, and by the prospect that a child could be harmed or abandoned. It's unclear how many cases where a provided child was never delivered and has gone missing. Children abandoned by real and fake parents have ended up in the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), waiting on a real parent to reclaim them.
"In the cases I'm looking at," Mapel said. "the mother lost track of that child. That child is now in another person's custody because they didn't reunite or something, somewhere."
Others may be abandoned in the field. Plenty of abandoned-child cases have come to the attention of federal agents, such a 3-year-old boy found recently near McAllen, Texas, crying alone in a corn field, the only tie to his family possibly the phone number written on one of his shoes. While it's unclear whether those children had been used for the asylum loophole entry, Mapel described the vulnerability that complicit parents allow by turning their kids over to others, during detention and after release, as "just foul."
"It's a new low for humanity that you would give your child away like this to a stranger or friend," she said. "I'd hate to see something happen to that child after the handoff occurs. They are with somebody who is not their parent. What if fake mom or fake dad needed to make medical decisions for the child? Just some random guy is going to be saying it's ok to do this procedure at a hospital? It's just not right; the person who is supposed to be protecting them is not there."
The market for kids is strong, the incentives to use them powerful. For instance, some men who have previously been deported and would be immediately turned around make up one market for children because, by paying to have one cross with them, they get escorted into the U.S. instead with few questions asked.
In other cases, the child is loaned at less risk to another family member, such as a grandmother, aunt or uncle, rather than a complete stranger. At other times, young adults with real parents lie that they are minors. But, Mapel pointed out, these instances still constitute fraudulent abuse of the U.S. system that should be deterred just like situations where children might be at higher risk.
4) Faux family schemes often come to the attention of federal authorities when some element of the plan breaks down. For instance, unrelated adult migrants marked for deportation "break" and disclose that the accompanying child belongs to someone else. The same thing happens if the true parent is not released for some reason, and the paying fake parent does not want to continue to care for the child inside the United States.
Mapel described one case where the fake father was removed and left the child at a family unit detention facility. Weeks later, the mother, who had been part of the scheme, came looking for the lost child. In situations like these, authorities will not release a child until DNA evidence or some other kind of evidence is provided.
5) Because this kind of fraud is so new and ubiquitous, federal authorities are grappling with how to charge and prosecute them in a way that would provide meaningful deterrence. Authorities charged the 52-year-old Honduran with alien smuggling, a crime that could bring a few years in prison. Document fraud stands as another possible charge that would bring modest penalty.
Mapel said she believes true mothers and fathers who participate in faux family schemes should be subjected to child endangerment charges and perhaps something new that could bring higher penalty.
"DHS has seen many examples of family unit fraud; you've victimized your child. A young, young child is sitting in a facility. If these children ended up with ORR, there're no hugs. There're no kisses. What are they, Facetiming? What are you doing to see your child? And yes, you did do that to him. That seems like child endangerment. So yes, I think children are the pawns in this scheme."