Central American immigrants are "recycling" children as family members in an attempt to make their way into the United States, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.
Border Patrol officers, along with Homeland Security Investigations, in El Paso, Texas, recently identified "at least one local case in which children are possibly being recycled and forced to undertake the treacherous journey from Central America to the United States," CBP said in a news release Friday.
On Wednesday, while interviewing a group of so-called family members, an officer noticed inconsistencies that led him to suspect that the alleged parent and child were not related.
"With continued questioning Border Patrol agents, OFO officers, and HSI agents were able to gain enough evidence to determine that the child had been 'recycled' in at least two prior instances," CBP said.
Thousands of Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras seeking asylum arrive at checkpoints along the U.S.-Mexico border every month, many claiming to be traveling as part of a family unit.
Are there any other cases of fraudulent family units?
Officials told the Arizona Daily Star that it has seen about 3,100 fraudulent claims across the southern border since April 2018.
Border officials near Yuma, Arizona, reported more than 700 fraudulent family claims from October to March, according to the report.
The newspaper searched federal court records in Yuma and Tucson and found 53 prosecutions involving fraudulent family claims since June.
In one case, Maynor Velasquez Molina allegedly paid the family of an 8-year-old boy to pretend to be the man's son when they arrived in the U.S.
On Feb. 18, the Guatemalan man and the boy joined more than 100 other migrants and crossed into the U,S. near Lukeville, Arizona. The man showed a birth certificate for the boy to prove their relation, but that was later determined to be false.
In March, a grand jury indicted Molina on human-smuggling charges.
Why are children being used this way?
Human smuggling groups are exploiting children for profit by utilizing loopholes in the U.S. immigration system.
"Transnational criminal organizations continue to profit from individuals utilizing loopholes in our immigration system to commit fraud," CBP explained. "These groups have no concern for the welfare or safety of the children and family groups being smuggled to the Southwest Border."
The Department of Homeland Security is expected to begin a pilot program that would allow officials to collect DNA samples from those suspected of fraudulent family claims, the Tucson Sentinel reported last week.
The cheek swap tests would be performed on a case-by-case basis, officials said.
The government has adopted a DNA testing system called ANDE, which provides results in less than two hours. The machine destroys the sample after it is analyzed.
DHS officials did not disclose the locations of the pilot program.