WASHINGTON—Posing as a family used to be a surefire way for illegal immigrants to gain quick release into the United States. But measures at the border are slowly shutting down smugglers’ tactics and ferreting out fake families.
Children are being rented, sold, and recycled by smuggling organizations to circumvent a loophole in U.S. law that requires anyone with a child to be released within 20 days.
A recent case in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, demonstrates the evolving tactics of those trying to easily get into the United States.
Border Patrol agents were processing a woman with a 2-month-old child when they determined that something was off and put her forward for DNA testing to prove a familial relationship. The test requires consent from the adult and uses cheek swabs from both the adult and child. It takes about two hours to get results.
“They did three or four tests and the DNA tests for the child kept coming back inconclusive. In fact they kept coming back with two different strains of DNA, which isn’t humanly possible,” said Matt Albence, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), on Jan. 23.
“The ‘mother’ was spitting into the child’s mouth to put her DNA into the child so they could be released as a family unit.”
Albence said the baby was rescued and the woman is in jail.
“That’s what’s going on down at the border. That’s the humanitarian crisis we’re talking about, and we’re trying to deal with it,” he said.
ICE Homeland Security Investigations launched the DNA program in May 2019, when illegal border crossings spiked to more than 132,000 for the month.
Of the 132,000 apprehensions by Border Patrol, more than 84,000, or 64 percent, were individuals comprising a family unit. Agents found that up to one-third of families referred to ICE officers by Border Patrol were found to be fraudulent.
Albence said so far, more than 700 fake families have been identified. Another 1,500 were found to have fake documents and claims of family ties, and more than 1,000 people have been prosecuted.
Adults found guilty of fraud are sent for federal prosecution by ICE for “family fraud related to crimes including immigration crime, identity and benefit fraud, alien smuggling, human trafficking and/or child exploitation.”
In cases in which the adult is the true parent, but doesn’t have a DNA relation to them, such as an older relative or adopted child, DHS stated they need legal documentation that proves some sort of guardian status.
In one case last year, a 51-year-old illegal alien had purchased a 6-month-old baby for $80 in Guatemala so that he could easily get into the United States. The man, a Honduran national, confessed to border agents when he was faced with a DNA test.
Now, Albence said, with the decline in family units crossing the border illegally, it’s harder for fake families to slip through the cracks.
The number of family units apprehended by Border Patrol dropped from 84,000 in May 2019, to 8,600 in December 2019. The decline lines up with several new initiatives by the Trump administration to stop the release of illegal immigrants into the United States—most significantly by making illegal immigrants wait in Mexico while their cases are being adjudicated.
“When these criminal organizations can no longer create these fake family units … that kills their market,” he said.