They are known simply as Victim A and Victim B in court documents.
Both are girls. One was about 16 and the other about 10 when they were smuggled early last year from Guatemala to the U.S. Government authorities said a man and a woman used the girls to pretend to be families.
For the adults, that subterfuge earned them a pass into the U.S. For the girls, it meant abuse.
The younger girl was ordered to sweep the floors and feed and change a newborn. She was beaten with a belt and a phone charging cord when she didn’t obey. The older girl told police that she was forced to work as a roofer and then in a factory, becoming the sole provider while the fake “parents” took it easy.
The man who posed as her father, Santos Ac-Salazar, has pleaded guilty in an Illinois court to a child abuse charge. His partner, Olga Choc-Laj, is slated to go on trial soon in Kane County. They also face federal forced-labor charges.
“This is a lose, lose, lose scenario. Everyone gets the misery,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, who has served as chief of the Border Patrol and acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The case highlights the other side of the family separation issue that has riven the country in recent years.
Most of the attention has gone to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy, which stepped up prosecutions in 2018 of parents who jumped the border with children. Federal jails have no family facilities, so the children were separated. The government didn’t have a good plan to reunite them.
Hundreds of children remained separated as of last month.
Another group included children like Victim A and Victim B, who ended up separated from parents — sometimes borrowed, sometimes outright sold, to Central Americans headed north who needed them to portray themselves as a family.
According to Homeland Security records, there were at least 432 fake families during a five-month period last year. Those were just the ones detected at the border. The Illinois case was missed and discovered only after a neighbor in Chicago reported the abuse.
“Kids are being separated every single day, not from the U.S. government but from parents,” Mark Morgan, acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection and a former acting ICE chief, told reporters last month. “We see this tragedy happening to the kids, and we’re not talking about that enough.”
Both sets of children are symptoms of the same problem: U.S. policies that give special treatment to illegal immigrant children and families, winning quick release and a chance to disappear into the shadows.
Children who show up at the U.S. without parents are known in government-speak as unaccompanied alien children, or UACs.
Under the confusing logic of U.S. law, UACs from Mexico can be quickly deported. If they are from Central America or farther afield, they are admitted and the government tries to find homes for them in the U.S.
A federal judge in 2015 ruled that the same policy should apply to children who show up with parents. She ordered release within about 20 days — not enough time to finish their immigration hearings.
Thus was born the “family loophole,” which sparked a surge of hundreds of thousands of adults and children at the border over the past five years.
Smugglers and parents in Central America quickly figured out that bringing a child meant quick release and a chance to disappear.
Some children still come alone.
Border Patrol agents near Brownsville, Texas, watched on cameras last month as a smuggler rafted four children across the Rio Grande, left them on the banks of the U.S. side and took off to return to the other side of the river.
Agents rushed to the spot and found the children. They were two sets of siblings from Honduras and Guatemala, ages 4, 5, 6 and 7, and they were wet and shivering. Someone had written names and phone numbers for relatives in the U.S. on their clothing, assured the government would complete the smugglers’ journey.
Days later, agents working near Hidalgo came across a group that just been rafted across the river. Most were children, including a 7-month-old baby from Honduras, who was being carried by a 13-year-old sibling. They were carrying birth certificates to prove the relationship. Their mother abandoned them three weeks earlier, authorities said.
Used as forced labor
The Illinois fake family takes those stories to another level.
According to court documents, Victim A, decided to come to the U.S. and contacted a smuggler in Guatemala, who connected her with Ms. Choc-Laj. They arrived at the U.S. border in February 2019, along with more than 36,000 other adults and children that month who claimed to be families.
They used bogus identities and were processed and released from custody after being given a notice to appear, the official summons for deportation proceedings. To migrants, the NTA is also known as a “permiso,” or “free pass.”
They ended up in Florida, where Ms. Choc-Laj put Victim A to work as a roofer, according to court filings, and took all the teen’s earnings, saying the money was needed to pay the smuggler.
The girl said she asked to go to school, but Ms. Choc-Laj told her she had to work. The youth was too “scared” of the woman to cross her. She was let go from the roofer’s job after a few weeks when the business said she was too young to work. The court documents did not mention whether the business was concerned about her legal status.
She and Ms. Choc-Laj then went to Aurora, Illinois, and Ac-Salazar joined them in May 2019 with Victim B. They all moved into a home, where the younger girl was put to work cleaning, doing laundry and cooking.
“If [the girls] did not do those chores, Ac-Salazar and Choc-Laj would ‘get mad’ at them,” wrote Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Tristan Stanger. The two adults beat the younger girl with a belt and a cellphone charging cord, the court documents say.
When Ms. Choc-Laj gave birth to a boy in October, the two girls were told to feed him and change his diapers. The adults didn’t help. Both stopped working and forced the older girl to be the breadwinner for all of them at $360 a week.
The teen said she asked to leave but was told she had to stay until she paid off the smuggling fees for herself and the adults. They kept her in line by threatening to report her to the police for being an illegal immigrant, and they refused to give her a cellphone or internet access. They even blocked her from calling her family in Guatemala.
A woman who baby-sat for the family, another illegal immigrant, reported the abuse of the younger girl. That was when Aurora police swooped in.
Because the case showed signs of human trafficking, they contacted ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations.
During an interview with ICE, Ms. Choc-Laj admitted she was placed with the teen girl so they could show up at the border together, portray themselves as a family and get a quick release.
Ac-Salazar, in his ICE interview, denied using the 11-year-old for smuggling purposes and insisted he had adopted her. The ICE agent who wrote the federal complaint pointedly noted that the birth certificate Ac-Salazar used didn’t mention any adoption and was dated April 30, 2019 — 10 days before they jumped the border.
The Washington Times reached out to attorneys for both Ac-Salazar and Ms. Choc-Laj. One didn’t respond to an inquiry, and the other responded but didn’t provide any comment.
The two girls in the case appear to have won temporary victim visas to keep them in the U.S. while the cases are proceeding.
It’s impossible to say how many more cases like the two girls are out there, undetected.
ICE, using DNA testing, managed to flag 432 fake families at the border from July through November last year, at the tail end of the migrant surge. That was about a quarter of all cases in Operation Double Helix, the voluntary DNA pilot program.
“It’s bad enough that perhaps tens of thousands people have been released into the United States in recent years on the basis of a fraudulent relationship with a child, but it’s horrific when the child abuse goes beyond being used as an entry prop to more serious forms of servitude like this,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
She praised the Trump administration for proposing a rule that would allow DNA to be taken from a broader range of illegal immigrants, which could sniff out more fraudulent families at the border.
Ms. Vaughan also lauded the cooperation between police in Aurora and ICE.
Aurora says it generally follows a noncooperation policy with ICE on deportation, prohibiting use of any resources to “support ICE in its enforcement activities.”
But that wall of separation doesn’t extend to trafficking investigations, where the city does cooperate with Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of ICE that operates separately from Enforcement and Removal Operations, the deportation arm.