Men now make up about 40 percent of illegal immigrant parents trying to sneak children into the U.S., as they leap to take advantage of the “family loophole” that means illegal immigrants who come with children get treated more leniently.
Fraud also has soared, with the Border Patrol identifying 150 cases from May to August of adults, men or women, pretending to be families to take advantage of the loophole.
Those 150 cases work out to an annual rate of 450 a year — or nearly 10 times the 46 cases recorded in all of 2017.
The numbers, which The Washington Times obtained from the Department of Homeland Security, signal the growing shift in immigration patterns as would-be migrants and the smugglers who shepherd them on their journey north exploit the soft underbelly of U.S. policy to gain a foothold here.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said children have become “pawns and deportation shields,” carried on the dangerous journey north and deployed to try to earn their parents more leniency.
“It’s a sad twist on the more typical model of how illegal immigration happens,” she said.
Through the first 11 months of fiscal 2018, Border Patrol agents encountered 16,667 families led by an adult male. That’s up from 7,896 for all of 2016 and 9,181 for 2017.
Female-led families, by contrast, have remained nearly constant, at 27,145 in 2016, 25,219 last year and 25,301 for fiscal 2018.
Those numbers undercut other explanations for the family surge cited by immigrant-rights groups and lawyers, such as poverty or violence in Central America. If that were the case, both categories likely would see increases.
Homeland Security officials say word of the family loophole has spread, with those who have successfully crossed coaching those back home. Smuggling networks also advertise the loophole.
“Aliens know that if they come across the border with a child – whether theirs or not — they will likely to be released into the interior and are almost impossible to remove,” said Katie Waldman, a Homeland Security spokeswoman. “This underscores the urgency for Congress to act and close these debilitating loopholes that encourage family units to make the dangerous illicit journey north.”
The root of the loophole is a 2015 ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee. She took longstanding protections for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and expanded them to cover children who are accompanied by parents. Under her ruling, children generally have to be released from immigration custody within 20 days, and since the government doesn’t want to separate families, that usually means releasing the parents, too.
By contrast, adult illegal immigrants nabbed at the border without children are usually detained until their cases are completed.
Immigration officials warned at the time that Judge Gee’s ruling distorted incentives and would lead to parents bringing children to take advantage.
That includes borrowing or “abduction” of some children to pose as families.
“A common tactic used by human smugglers is to place minors with unrelated adults and provide fraudulent documents as part of the services they deliver,” Marc Sanders, head of Homeland Security’s human smuggling cell, said in a court filing in April.
“The aliens and their smugglers believe that if they can make a claim that they are traveling as a family unit, this will allow for their prompt release from immigration custody.”
In August alone, Border Patrol agents identified at least 60 cases of fraudulent family claims.
Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said they’re also seeing the average number of people in each family drop, as migrants realize they can get two parents in if they show up separately, each with a child.
“If you know you’re going to succeed, you’re going to continue in that pattern,” he told reporters several weeks ago, reviewing the growing family migration numbers.
The Washington Times reached out to several immigrant-rights groups and lawyers to run the numbers by them, but they either didn’t respond or said they were unable to provide a comment.
After years of gridlock, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill say they’re reaching for answers to the family loophole. And both sides agree on a general solution: Find a way to get illegal immigrant families to show up for their court and deportation proceedings.
But the parties differ on the tactics.
Democrats have called for ankle monitoring devices and social services programs to keep track of illegal immigrants and to encourage them to show up for their proceedings. They also called for more immigration judges to be hired to speed up the caseload.
The Trump administration says it is trying to hire judges and has taken steps to cut the length of time a case takes by limiting continuances.
But a top official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement dismissed the chance of using monitoring devices, saying about 30 percent of parents fitted for the bracelets cut them off “within days or weeks” of being released the first time.
“I simply do not have the resources to get people once they’re at large in the communities,” Matthew Albence, executive associate director at ICE, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.