Walfrie Eliseo Camposeco-Montejo’s pitch to the Guatemalan woman was simple: Let me use your son to get into the U.S., and I promise I’ll send him to American schools.
The ailing woman liked the idea. She gave her 12-year-old to Camposeco-Montejo, and they struck off for the U.S. in late 2016 just as another border crisis was developing. Arrested by Border Patrol agents, Camposeco-Montejo used a bogus birth certificate to claim he was the father of the boy and was given the catch-and-release treatment under the “family loophole” in U.S. policy.
The boy never made it to school.
Instead, court documents say, Camposeco-Montejo forced him into work, 10 hours a day, six days a week, picking peppers or flowers at Florida farms. He was also pressed into the overnight cleaning shift at a movie theater. He got three hours of sleep a day, and Camposeco-Montejo confiscated most of his paycheck. He said the money was to pay off the $5,000 fee they had paid the cartels to be smuggled into the U.S.
The boy, who was identified in court documents only as Minor Victim 1, or MV1, eventually managed to escape and tell his story.
Camposeco-Montejo was arrested and was sentenced to eight years in prison this month.
DOCUMENT: Busting fake families on the border
His case is egregious but is by no means rare. Camposeco-Montejo is part of the surge of fake families crossing the southwestern border in recent years, straining U.S. generosity and subjecting children to horrific abuse.
“For every trafficker like the defendant who is convicted in court, there are dozens of others who continue to operate in broad daylight,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Schiller said as he pleaded with the federal judge in Florida for a stiffer sentence.
The surge of fake families migrating to the U.S. began during the Obama administration but exploded last year after smuggling cartels figured out how easy it was to pretend to be a family and earn what most illegal immigrants want: quick release into communities, where they disappear into the shadows.
Smugglers began matching children with single adults in Central America and sent them on the treacherous journey north together, armed with fake documents. Other times, as in the case of Camposeco-Montejo, parents “gifted” their children to a migrant.
In some of the most shocking cases, smuggling rings “recycled” children by sending them north with one migrant, returning them to Central America and then sending them with someone else.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it has prosecuted more than 700 cases, though rarely are the penalties as severe as Camposeco-Montejo’s.
DOCUMENT: Busting fake families on the border
Francisco Paredes-Garcia, who tried to use a bogus birth certificate in March to claim a Guatemalan boy as his son, eventually admitted to the scam. He told investigators the real father “gifted” the boy to him.
He pleaded guilty to making false statements to the government and was sentenced to time served, or about 45 days.
Another man, Anibal Ralac-Ajtun, showed up at the border in April with a 16-year-old. Under questioning by ICE agents, he admitted the boy wasn’t related and was in fact “provided” by the smugglers he had paid in Guatemala. He pleaded guilty to illegal reentry into the U.S. and was sentenced to time served, about 29 days.
Flores family loophole
Department of Homeland Security officials and immigration analysts trace the surge of fake families to a 2015 ruling by a federal court in California.
Judge Dolly M. Gee, an Obama appointee, was asked to update the Flores agreement, a 1997 settlement that appeared to grant special protections to children who came to the U.S. without parents. Immigrant rights activists said the agreement should be expanded to include children who come with parents and should be released quickly from detention despite their illegal status.
The Obama administration opposed the idea and warned the courts that children would be “abducted” for people to falsely pose as families.
Judge Gee sided with the activists. She imposed a 20-day limit on child detention and said they should be released to their parents. That meant the parents also had to go free within 20 days.
Thus a loophole was born.
It took time for Central Americans to realize how they could exploit the loophole, but the families started showing up in greater numbers by late 2016. In the final three months of that year, the Border Patrol arrested nearly 45,000 parents and children traveling as families — a record at the time.
Camposeco-Montejo was part of that first wave, but the worst was yet to come.
By early last year, crisis had turned to catastrophe. The Border Patrol nabbed more than 200,000 people traveling as families in one three-month period.
The vast majority are real families, sometimes fleeing rough conditions back home. Among them are legitimate asylum cases, but most are simply seeking jobs or to reconnect with family already in the U.S. Bringing a child was their passport — a way to puncture laws designed to keep them out.
There is no way to determine how many of the families are fake.
Camposeco-Montejo arrived in 2016, but his scam wasn’t detected until much later, after the boy escaped from his control.
ICE last year created Operation Noble Guardian and sent agents to the border to investigate suspected cases of fake families. In 20% of the cases flagged for investigation, they found evidence to dispute an adult’s claims of parentage of the child they transported.
Some are relatives, such as an uncle or elder brother, but others are not.
In one recent case, agents grew suspicious of a woman who had a 2-month-old baby girl but wasn’t breastfeeding. They also spotted red flags in her documents, said Matt Albence, acting director at ICE.
The woman agreed to a DNA test of her and the child, but three cheek-swab samples in a row from the baby showed a mixture of two DNA types. Agents figured out that the woman was spitting into the baby’s mouth to try to fool the test.
Mr. Albence said ICE has identified some of the smuggling organizations involved and has dozens of active investigations.
“We didn’t realize the scope of it until we were down there with boots on the ground — the amount of children that was being recycled and utilized for the sole purpose of allowing an unrelated adult to pose as a family,” he said.
The increase in families crossing the border also meant more children dying from the journey.
The first deaths were just before Christmas in 2018, and more followed in 2019.
One woman lost her 8-year-old son when the boy’s father brought him on the journey. She told Reuters they watched others gain quick entry to the U.S. by bringing a child.
“Lots of them have gone with children and managed to cross, even if they’re held for a month or two. But they always manage to get across easily,” the mother told the news organization.
In the wake of the boy’s death, The Washington Times asked Judge Gee whether she bore responsibility for the situation, given the warnings the Obama administration delivered about abductions. Her courtroom deputy instructed The Times not to contact the judge’s chambers.
Compounding matters is the relatively light punishment for those who attempt to fake a family. Most of the cases The Times has tracked to completion ended with the culprits sentenced to time served, which amounted to weeks behind bars.
The federal prosecutor in the forced labor case told the court that Congress has “not truly recognized” the severity of those kinds of situations.
Officials said Congress has other options. It could close the Flores loophole, which would remove the incentive for adults to bring children on the trip.
“These family cases are something new,” said John F. Bash, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, the largest federal district on the southwestern border. “These family cases are all part of an effort to take advantage of that policy.”
He said officials generally see three types of cases. One involves two adults who show up, with one posing as a juvenile. A second involves an actual family group, such as a mother and child, along with someone else claiming to be part of the family — perhaps a husband and father.
The rarest situation, Mr. Bash said, are cases such as Camposeco-Montejo, in which the adult and child are completely unrelated.
Prosecutors have a few options. They can bring charges of fraud, charges of lying to an investigator, or smuggling charges, but that is only in the worst situations. The most common charge is illegal entry or reentry.
“It’s because the child is not really being, in a lot of these cases, smuggled or kidnapped. It’s a bunch of people lying about their age,” he said.
Yet in some cases it is kidnapping.
Guillermo Flores Jr., the court-appointed lawyer who represented Camposeco-Montejo, said his work on the forced labor case in Florida was eye-opening.
“For me, it was an example of just how important it is to have secure borders and how real the problems are occurring at the borders,” he said, adding that his client was “utilizing the system against itself.”
The boy, now 16, is living with a foster family, Mr. Flores said, and is seeking a victim visa that would earn him a path to stay in the U.S. He attended the sentencing.
Mr. Flores said Camposeco-Montejo was able to fool Border Patrol agents because it was easy to obtain a fraudulent birth certificate in Guatemala.
Mr. Flores said he was also struck that no employer questioned the age of the 12-year-old.
“Imagine the cases that we’re not getting an opportunity to see and rescue young people from,” he said. “How many are we truly missing?”
On the border, the news is better.
After struggling for solutions and suffering the embarrassment of the failed “zero tolerance” policy in 2018 that led to family separations, the administration settled on a set of solutions that are working.
Now a framework is in place to deal with the flow of migrants from Central America, officials say.
The chief goal was to deny them the foothold in the U.S. that quick release provided.
Key changes included expedited hearings, negotiating deals with Central American governments for faster deportations of those who lose their cases, and pushing tens of thousands back across the border to make them wait for their hearings in Mexico.
Mexico, under pressure from Mr. Trump, deployed tens of thousands of its own national guard troops to try to turn back some migrants before they reached the U.S.
The number of families has plummeted. In the final three months of 2019, the Border Patrol arrested fewer than 27,000 — an 87% reduction from the peak.
Officials say the number of fake families has declined with the overall flow and that cases they see increasingly involve migrants from far afield, such as Brazil or African nations.
In one incident this month, Patrick Joao de Conceicavo showed up at the border crossing in Brownsville, Texas, claiming to be from Angola and demanding asylum for himself and his supposed juvenile son.
But when officers talked to the son, he acknowledged his name was Abraham Abraham Nkom, he wasn’t related to Mr. Joao de Conceicavo and he was born in 1994, making him at least 25.
Mr. Joao de Conceicavo refused to concede but agreed to a DNA test. It showed the probability of a parent-child relationship was “0.00 percent,” according to court documents.
Mr. Joao de Conceicavo now faces smuggling and fraud charges.