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Op-ed

Child traffickers are using our southern border and immigration laws to smuggle kids into the US for the sex trade. Here's what Congress can do to address it.

They're using our system against us

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A few weeks ago I was called to testify before a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee. As a former Homeland Security Special Agent/Undercover Operator that worked child-trafficking cases for over a decade along the southern border with Mexico, I was there to testify about the sex-trafficking threat that awaits vulnerable migrant children being illegally brought into the United States. Shortly after I began my testimony, the chairwoman of the committee politely, but firmly, stated on the record that my testimony was irrelevant for this particular hearing, as, she opined, this hearing was about the U.S. government's policy of separating undocumented families at the border — not about child trafficking.

As it is against hearing procedure for witnesses to provide unsolicited comments to members of the committee, I had to sit there in silence, yet with full knowledge, that the chairwoman was wrong. Any discussion of migrant family separation and/or reunification policies at our southern border is wholly incomplete without discussing the reality — an increasing number of children are being trafficked across the border. Not only is it real, but it thrives within the very policies intended to keep migrant children safe and with their families. And yet, nobody seems to acknowledge this reality, as it grows and grows right under our very noses.

To understand this reality and ongoing threat, we must first acknowledge certain trends accompanying the massive, record-breaking influx of undocumented migrants seeking entry into the United States at our southern borders. No longer are we seeing mostly single adult males coming to find work (as we did in the 90's and 2000's), rather we are now finding adults bringing thousands and thousands of children.

Since 2017, ther e has been a 136 percent increase in the number of children being brought illegally into the country through our southern border. The sheer number of children identified is shocking. But the real disturbing part is this: thousands of these children end up not belonging in any way to the adult migrants claiming them. Since 2017, there has been a whopping 314 percent increase in adults coming illegally through our southern border bringing children they claim to be theirs, but are not. In the last 10 months alone, there have been more than 1,700 documented cases of this stranger fraud.

So, what is going on? To identify the cause, you first should know that human smuggling organizations control the routes leading up to and through the southern border. Simply put, nobody is getting through the southern border without paying these smugglers. So, it is the smugglers who are taking children and pairing them with undocumented migrants and instructing the migrants to pretend they are the parents as they cross into the United States. And the reason is simple: if a migrant attempts to enter the United States through the port of entry with a child, U.S. policy dictates that child and "parent" must be released from custody within 20 days of their apprehension. The policy, backed by court precedent, is intended to quickly reunite children with their families. But, there is a hidden evil in this good intentioned policy. For this policy incentivizes smugglers and traffickers to use and abuse child victims.

Let me take you into the criminal mind of sex traffickers. They know the United States represents perhaps the highest demand for child sex in the world. (The U.S. regularly ranks as the highest consumer of child rape videos in the world.) Naturally, traffickers would like to get these children into the lucrative, illicit American sex markets. They also know it is easier to kidnap children in developing countries, such as those in Central America, as the likelihood of being caught is low.

But how do these criminals smuggle them in? Unfortunately, U.S. policy has provided the answer. Simply walk the child into the United States, with an illegal adult claiming the child is their child, and both will be released into the United States within 20 days. Or, if you prefer, send the child alone or unaccompanied, and then send somebody (perhaps your trafficking partner already in the U.S.) to show up at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offices and claim the child.

"Hello, I'm Uncle George and 6-year-old Isabel, who is in your custody, is my niece."

That's all the trafficker needs to say, and CBP has no choice but to turn the child over; for the laws of the land, backed by court precedent, have forced their hand. Sure, the sponsor must sign for the child (like you would for a library book), promise to care for the child, and promise to bring the child back on the assigned court date before an immigration judge for either a deportation or asylum hearing. But guess what? Sixty-six percent of the children are never brought back for court. They are gone. Vanished forever. And nobody ever knows who "Uncle George" really was. And they likely never will.

And that's how you use U.S. laws to complete a child trafficking event.

The best case for these children (which is still abhorrent) is that they will be recycled back into Mexico and used as pawns in the hands of smugglers to get their illegal migrant clients into the United States. These kids become a "get-out-of-jail-free" card for the migrants being smuggled in. The other option, while absolutely unthinkable, is also a real possibility. Trends confirm that these children could easily end up being sold for sex, and raped thousands and thousands of times in the United States. I have personally been a part of the liberation and rehabilitation of these migrant child sex slaves in America.

Compare the above story with this: My wife and I recently adopted two children from another country. It took the United States, along with my children's home country, well over a year to vet me and my wife to ensure we were safe and would provide a good home for our children. And yet, Congress does nothing to protect these migrant children. They sit idly by and allow those who stake claim on these vulnerable migrant children to have the upper hand over CBP, who only has 20 days or less to vet sponsors coming to take the children away forever. Why should my children be any different from these migrant children? Why should we protect one child any more than another? This policy is absurd, inhumane, and completely unacceptable.

I call on Congress to drop the politics and come together (both parties!) for the children and solve this crisis. I don't have all the long-term answers, but I plead with Congress to make two immediate changes to mitigate this grave threat to children:

No. 1: Congress should pass legislation that provides CBP with the tools to develop protocols to only release children over to the custody of their families or designated, responsible adults and properly vetted adults. This may include international investigations and judicial identity hearings to find the real families of the children; for the separation of child and parent may have occurred long before the child ever crossed into the United States. To be clear, I'm not suggesting children be separated at any time from their families, only that unaccompanied minors not be systematically delivered to unverified strangers. Congress should also mandate and fund the use of rapid DNA technology (technology I have personally utilized) which can confirm genetic connections in a couple of hours.

No. 2: Congress should immediately pass legislation to mandate and fund the transfer of immigration and asylum courts to our U.S. embassies in foreign countries, starting with those in Central America. Immigrants and asylum seekers from those countries will no longer need to enter the United States to be heard, rather they will use the local, and more convenient, courts in their own countries to do their legitimate business with the United States. Migrants will be granted more rapid access and passage to the United States without having to drag themselves and their children across thousands of miles of unforgiving dessert, through multiple, dangerous countries, where they have to wait in precarious border towns to have their petitions adjudicated. If imminent and credible threats are chasing these applicants in their own countries, Congress could consider taking measures for their protection during adjudication.

Most importantly, this policy would crush the incentive for smugglers and traffickers to kidnap children and use them as pawns for smuggling schemes, or worse, to be used as sex slaves. For these criminals will not have their “20-day" loophole. If they bring a child to the Port of Entry they will be told to return to the embassy in their country and take their legitimate petition to the immigration official there. Since they have no legitimate claim, they will stop their scheme; they will leave the children alone.

Currently, there is a mass immigration crisis at the border and it is getting worse. While the problems and the solutions in their entirety are not simple, one part is simple, we must do everything we can to stop children from being harmed. If we are willing to sit back, take a deep breath, drop the politics, and focus on one thing—doing right by the children, we are well on our way to providing a comprehensive solution to this problem. We must have the courage to take this important first step to address this crisis. Certainly, the protection of children is something that everyone can agree on.

This piece has been updated.

One last thing…
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