More than 600 children were “recycled” through the border over the last year, including some who were carried across eight times, by a different person each time, looking to exploit lax policies to gain a foothold in the U.S., a top ICE official told Congress on Wednesday.
And those are only cases that were detected, officials said.
The recycled children are one of the more disturbing aspects of illegal border flow over the last 12 months, which set records for the number of children and families who snuck into the U.S.
The families were drawn by a lax policy, imposed by a federal court, that gives adults a quick release into communities as long as they brought a son or daughter with them.
The result was massive levels of fraud, with adults renting or outright buying unrelated children in order to present themselves as a family, authorities said. In some cases it was a one-off, but in other instances children were “recycled” across the border multiple times, said Derek N. Benner, acting deputy director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We’ve identified over 600 children that have been recycled,” he said.
That means that once they came across with an unrelated adult, they were then separated by the smuggling operation and taken back south across the border to be brought back again with a new adult, he said.
“Some of them had indicated they’ve made the trip as many as eight times, with separate, unrelated adults each time,” he added.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, recounted one case where they caught a Honduran man who’d “bought a child” for $80, then attempted to cross into the U.S.
“Why did he do it? Because the loopholes in our system told him — and the smugglers made sure he understood — ‘You grab a child, that’s your passport into the United States,’” Mr. Morgan told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Mr. Benner detailed another case where a Guatemalan man showed up at the border with a girl he claimed to be his daughter. Authorities didn’t immediately sniff out the fake relationship and under the lax U.S. policies toward families the man and girl were released.
The girl was “repeatedly” sexually abused and beaten, until she was finally rescued, Mr. Benner said.
ICE began in the spring to use DNA testing to try to weed out fraudulent families at the border.
That involved taking people who presented as families, but where suspicions were raised, and testing DNA to try to confirm the purported relationship. At the height, Mr. Benner said, about a quarter of the cases tested came back as fake families.
Cartels began to adjust their strategies and the rate is now 13% to 15%, he said.
Mr. Morgan and Mr. Benner testified at a hearing called to examine the border numbers from fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, closing out the worst year in more than a decade.
Still, things ended on a better note than the nadir in May, when more than 5,000 persons were caught jumping the border on some days. The number is now less than 1,400 a day.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and the Homeland Security Committee chairman, said that still means 608,000 children and parents were caught. He asked whether Homeland Security has any way of tracking them to know how to reach them — and deport them, if they lose their cases.
“No, we don’t,” Mr. Benner replied.
Also Wednesday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced a new policy that would block asylum-seekers from being granted work permits until after they win their asylum cases.
The goal is to remove one of the incentives for bogus family claims. Under current policy migrants who demand asylum and clear the first hurdle can get work permits after a waiting period, giving them a chance to deepen ties even though the majority end up being deemed ineligible for asylum.
“Illegal aliens are gaming our asylum system for economic opportunity, which undermines the integrity of our immigration system and delays relief for legitimate asylum seekers in need of humanitarian protection,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director at USCIS.