Where Are the Children? For extortionists, undocumented migrants have become big business

Sarah Stillman, Where Are the Children? For extortionists, undocumented migrants have become big business. The New Yorker, 27 April 2015. “Tougher border security has made migrants [from Central America] more vulnerable. Routes are more perilous, and organized crime controls many smuggling operations. One activist says, ‘The harder you make it to cross, the more people can charge, the more dangerous the trip becomes.'”

America’s migrant-extortion market remains in the shadows of [the] fierce immigration debate [in the U.S.]. One reason is that the crime targets those who are least likely to report it. Another is that the victims of ransom kidnappings are sometimes twice disappeared: after being rescued from the stash houses where they are kept, they are often detained long enough to testify against their captors and then are swiftly deported. Some of them are informed of the possibility to seek legal relief, generally in the form of a U visa, designated for victims of crime who help law enforcement or prosecutors, or a T visa, for survivors of trafficking. Still, such protections are hard to obtain, and the price for speaking out against captors can be steep….

Fear of the police can loom as large as fear of captors, particularly in parts of the country where law enforcement is believed to detain undocumented people who come forward to report a crime….

In the early nineteen-nineties, programs such as Operation Hold-the-Line, in El Paso, attempted to block undocumented migrants’ access to traditional crossing routes. But, rather than give up, most migrants simply adapted. Instead of approaching dense cities directly, they resorted to harsher, ever more circuitous routes, increasing their exposure, along the way, to lethal threats like sunstroke, dehydration, and snakebites….

In the aftermath of 9/11, the border with Mexico came to be viewed as the site of three distinct U.S. policy wars—on drugs, on illicit immigration, and on terrorism—all intertwined in the notion of “border security.” The country built some six hundred miles of border fence, and deployed Predator drones and other instruments of aerial surveillance. The ranks of Border Patrol more than doubled, to twenty-one thousand. By last spring [2014],…the U.S. was devoting more money annually to border-and immigration-enforcement agencies than to every other federal law-enforcement agency combined, including the F.B.I. and the D.E.A.

One consequence of the heightened border-security measures in the past two decades is that far more border crossers have died. Between 1998 and 2012, fatalities nearly doubled, reaching a peak of four hundred and seventy-seven even as Mexican migration dipped to its lowest level in four decades. These deaths have started to decline only recently, as border authorities and volunteer groups work to rescue a greater number of stranded migrants.

Another consequence has been the concentration of human smuggling under the aegis of organized crime. According to Michelle Brané, who has interviewed more than a hundred Central American migrants for the Women’s Refugee Commission, “The harder you make it to cross, the more people can charge, the more dangerous the trip becomes.” The country’s current approach to border security has made coyotes more indispensable to migrants than ever, Brané told me, and has led to the replacement of small-time smuggling operations—lone guides, in many cases, bringing migrants across the border—with sophisticated, and increasingly brutal, transnational networks. “Smuggling is not the same as trafficking,” she said. Migrants pay smugglers to transport them; traffickers are in the business of moving or holding people against their will. “But as the border becomes militarized the differences become blurred.”…

As the mayor of Phoenix during the nineteen-eighties and Arizona’s attorney general from 2003 to 2011, [Terry] Goddard had presided over the explosion in border-security measures, aggressively seeking to eliminate stash houses where migrants were held for ransom. But he discovered that the source of the problem went much deeper than individual smugglers. Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant laws made undocumented victims afraid to coöperate with law enforcement on prosecutions, and, as long as the country continued to rely on immigrant labor while giving workers few avenues for legal entry, extortionists would have access to a consistent supply of prey. “You can push down the practice in Arizona,” he said, of stash-house extortions, “and it will pop up elsewhere.”…

Targeting migrants for extortion has its roots south of the border. For years, Mexico’s ransom industry thrived by focussing on the rich. In 2006, the Mexican military, with American support, began to battle the country’s drug cartels, with the paradoxical result that the strongest cartels, like the Zetas, consolidated their power. Even as they continued to traffic in lucrative specialties—cocaine, marijuana, meth—the Zetas sought out additional criminal ventures, pursuing everything from pirated oil to bootlegged DVDs. Migrants were easy prey. The cartel took over northbound migration routes, charged fees to coyotes, and began snatching migrants from the tops of freight trains riding north; they extorted victims’ families with near-total impunity….

Marta Sánchez Soler, the director of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement and the trip’s coördinator, [said] “When organized crime kidnaps somebody rich, the media and police mobilize. Then the criminals feel the heat. So they realized that, rather than doing one big, flashy kidnapping of someone rich and powerful, it would be better to do a hundred small kidnappings of migrants whom nobody pays attention to.” Together, we did the arithmetic: by recent estimates, at least eighteen thousand migrants are seized in Mexico each year. If a third of their families pay a lowball ransom of four thousand dollars, that’s twenty-four million dollars, with minimal risk or labor.

Soler noted that these kidnappers are often aided by the same Mexican authorities who benefit from U.S. drug-war funds. Many local police, she said, have been known to take a cut of the ransom. Last December, a document obtained by the National Security Archive, in Washington, D.C., revealed that, during confidential questioning by Mexican prosecutors, a local law-enforcement officer said that San Fernando police had helped turn migrants over to the cartel in exchange for payoffs….

By last summer [2014], the number of child migrants travelling alone had soared above fifty thousand, straining the capacity of the systems put in place to deal with them. The vast majority were fleeing the violence and poverty of Central America’s Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. President Obama declared an “urgent humanitarian situation” and directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to create an interagency task force, led by the head of FEMA, to provide relief. As the governments of the Northern Triangle sought to stanch the exodus, a U.S.-funded public-service campaign flooded Honduran and El Salvadoran radio stations with songs set to marimba beats, to discourage children from crossing….

A 2008 federal anti-trafficking statute allows child migrants travelling without parents or legal guardians to make their case before an immigration judge, rather than face immediate deportation. (The statute excludes minors from Mexico or Canada.)…

The afternoon of Brayan and Robinson’s rescue [the Godoy brothers, fourteen and fifteen years old in May 2014], federal agents moved them to a holding cell of the kind known as hieleras, or “iceboxes,” for their often frigid temperatures. The brothers sat on the cell’s concrete floor beneath fluorescent lights. An official came around with frozen bologna sandwiches. The hieleras, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, are meant to be short-term processing facilities; often, the rooms have no beds, mattresses, or chairs. In one corner of the cell was an exposed toilet, which the boys shared with numerous other children. (A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that the agency “took extraordinary measures to care for” children in “overcrowded facilities” during last summer’s migrant surge.)

By law, Border Patrol is required to turn over unaccompanied minors to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within seventy-two hours. Then they are placed in a regulated system of shelters, and authorities must seek to reunite them with parents or relatives when possible, or place them in foster care to await federal immigration hearings. Instead, the Godoy boys were held in a hielera for a week and a half, packed on the floor each night beneath bright lights.

“No one slept,” Brayan recalls. “There were no windows, so you didn’t know when it was day or night.” The kidnappers had at least given them warm food and a soft couch. At the hielera, blisters formed on their feet, and they lost weight….

On November 20th [2014], President Obama announced a series of executive actions to defer deportations for nearly five million undocumented immigrants now living in the country, including almost four million parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. “We’re going to keep focussing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he promised, outlining his plan based on the concept of prosecutorial discretion. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”…

The legal status of Obama’s actions is itself uncertain. Twenty-six states sued in federal court to block deportation relief; their case appeared before Andrew Hanen, of Brownsville, the judge who complained about the failure to prosecute parents who brought their children north with smugglers. In February [2015], Hanen issued a preliminary injunction against the President’s plan. (The Obama Administration has filed an appeal.)