MS-13 is paying smugglers to coach gang members on how to game the U.S. immigration system, teaching underage members to claim UAC status — and telling those over 18 to lie and claim they are underage — to try to gain quick, easy access to the U.S., government officials said Thursday.
Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican, said his district is such a hotbed of MS-13 activity that authorities are “right now digging for bodies within a mile of my house.” He said some families are forced to facilitate gang members’ arrivals and are pressured by gangs to become sponsors and claim the children when they arrive.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed the pipeline.
“They recruit young children, they train them how to be smuggled across our border, how to then join up with gang members in the United States,” she told Congress.
The government this week detailed such a case from this month in Arizona, where Border Patrol agents nabbed an 18-year-old from El Salvador. He first claimed to be underage to try to claim UAC status. Under questioning, he acknowledged he was an adult and was part of MS-13 — though he insisted he was trying to leave the gang.
Unaccompanied alien children — those who arrive at the U.S. border without their parents — are among the trickiest populations of illegal immigrants.
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They began to surge toward the U.S. in 2012 and crested in 2014, overwhelming an Obama administration that was ill-equipped to handle them. In addition to gangs, some UAC were turned over to criminals, who forced them into labor or otherwise abused them.
More than five years into the crisis, the UAC numbers are once again rising — and the administration is still struggling to get a grip on matters, as officials made clear in hearings Thursday on both sides of the Capitol.
While Ms. Nielsen begged House lawmakers to close the loopholes that she said invite UAC and others to test U.S. immigration policy, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officials were being grilled by senators about why the government is unable to keep track of the children once they are in the U.S.
Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at HHS, said of 7,635 UAC that the department tried to check in with last year after their first 30 days with their sponsors, they found 28 had run away and 52 had ditched their sponsors to move in with others.
More striking, though, were the 1,475 UAC whom the department “was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of” just 30 days after they had been placed in those homes.
“You are the worst foster parents in the world. You don’t even know where they are,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat.
Losing track of UAC matters, both for the children’s well-being and for the ability of the government to push them through the immigration system, getting them a hearing and deciding if they should be deported or granted permanent status.
Nearly 60 percent of all UAC don’t show up for their hearings. Children who don’t show up for their hearings are essentially free and clear. Neither HHS nor Homeland Security said they pursue UAC who skip out on their hearings.
Indeed, the latest numbers show that just 3.5 percent of UAC who came to the U.S. during the surge are deported, Ms. Nielsen said.
Government officials pointed fingers at each other, and lawmakers said they were getting fed up after Homeland Security and Health and Human Services couldn’t tell the Senate’s chief investigative panel when they will complete a months-overdue joint cooperation plan.
Part of the problem is that the legal framework for UAC is disjointed at best.
Children from Mexico can be deported quickly, but those from noncontiguous countries must be processed by Homeland Security and then turned over to HHS, which holds them in government-run dorms until sponsors can be found.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate investigative panel, said HHS has a signed agreement with each UAC sponsor, who agrees to make sure the children show up for their hearings.
But he said HHS doesn’t even know when they skip the hearings.
“We have no mechanism for enforcing the agreement if they fail to show up,” Mr. Wagner confirmed.
“Obviously a red flag when a child fails to show up for a hearing. I think we’ve identified this morning so many parts of the system that simply aren’t working for the children or for our immigration system,” Mr. Portman said.
The amount of information the government didn’t know at the Senate hearing was stunning.
Mr. Wagner couldn’t say how often his department alerts local police about potential dangers they should be aware of in some homes, nor could he say how often fraudulent documents are used.
He couldn’t detail the criteria that foster parents are required to meet to accept children and couldn’t even say how many of the sponsors the UAC are being delivered to aren’t U.S. citizens.
“We actually don’t have that data, Senator,” Mr. Wagner told Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican. The official promised that his agency would begin to collect the information.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, questioned part of a cooperative agreement that will have the Health Department take and run fingerprints of potential UAC sponsors by Homeland Security.
HHS said the goal is to get a better sense for the people the children are being turned over to, in case there are red flags the department is missing.
But Ms. Harris expressed worry that the fingerprints could be used to deport illegal immigrant parents, who the majority of the time are the ones taking the UAC.
Meanwhile, Ms. Heitkamp bristled at the Republicans who conflated UAC with gangs.
“Are there bad kids in this group? I’ll bet you there are,” she said. “But we take that small number of kids who are up here to join the gang and to continue that criminal enterprise, and we compare it with the large number of children who are here, sent by their parents all alone, and now they’re the most vulnerable.”