Kids caught in middle in border smuggling : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Kids caught in middle in border smuggling Illegal crossings up, taxing agencies on both sides

By Anna Cearley STAFF WRITER

April 15, 2001

TIJUANA -- Twelve-year-old María Guadalupe Galarza stood in line at the San Ysidro border pedestrian checkpoint alongside the smuggler her mother had hired to take her to Los Angeles.

María shuffled forward nervously, repeating to herself the fake name the matronly smuggler had given her.

But when a U.S. immigration agent asked María her name, she froze. The agent pulled her aside, abruptly ending the girl's 1,000-mile journey north.

Family ties extend beyond borders, and smugglers are capitalizing on this emotional tug to spirit thousands of children illegally into the United States from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

The children come to the border by plane, bus, car and foot. Older kids often travel alone or with friends, perhaps to join relatives or to start new lives of their own. But some are so young they can barely spell their names, or may not even be able to talk yet.

These more helpless youngsters -- under the age of 14 -- are typically accompanied by smugglers posing as parents or relatives. Their numbers have risen dramatically in recent years, creating special challenges for immigration and social service agencies on both sides of the border.

At the San Ysidro port of entry, 4,228 children under the age of 18 were turned over to the Mexican Consulate for deportation last year, a 300 percent increase since 1997. An additional 1,800 children were detained last year at the Mexicali-Calexico border crossing.

The Mexican Consulate in San Diego, which uses a different fiscal year, categorizes the children by age. Those records show that 399 of the children the consulate received last year were 11 or younger; 1,214 were between 12 and 15; and 2,954 were 16 or 17.

Smugglers usually charge $1,200 to $1,500 to take a child across one of the U.S. ports of entry. Most of the trips are made by car or foot, although some smugglers resort to more dangerous methods.

A Border Patrol surveillance camera once taped a smuggler dropping a baby over the fence.

And last month, U.S. Customs agents at the San Ysidro border found an 11-year-old Mexican girl concealed in a specially made container inside a truck. The girl, who was being taken to Santa Barbara to be reunited with one of her parents, was placed in the custody of Tijuana relatives. The driver, Daniel Dionisio Laguna Montoya, a Mexican national with permanent residency in the United States, faces at least three years in jail if convicted.

Defenseless cargo Claudia Smith, border project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in Oceanside, believes more children are being smuggled through the ports of entry as a result of the Border Patrol's Operation Gatekeeper. In 1994, Gatekeeper tightened security along the border fence that separates San Ysidro and Imperial Beach from Mexico. With that route closed, some border crossers were pushed east into harsh desert and mountainous terrain, while others began trying to blend with legal border crossers at the ports of entries. INS officials say the total number of apprehensions at the San Ysidro port of entry alone has increased from 51,000 in 1994 to 70,000 last year.

Part of that increase includes children who used to cross with their families near San Ysidro, Smith said. Now, many parents make the treacherous mountain crossing, then send for the kids.

"If you have money, you pay someone to get them across because the safest route is through the ports of entry," Smith said.

As more children show up at the ports of entry, Mexican and United States agencies are feeling the strain. The INS invited the Mexican Consulate to open a branch office at the San Ysidro border crossing four years ago, in part to help deal with the problem.

Baja California officials have to place some of the younger children in shelters originally intended for neglected and abused kids. The state's child protective services agency spends countless hours tracking down families and about $120,000 a year on plane fares to send the kids home.

"We are dealing with a problem that has international significance," said Silvia Estela Varela Islas, the agency's general director.

"I worry about the teen-agers, but I worry more about the children who can't defend themselves. When you give a child to someone you don't know, there is no guarantee that they will arrive at the designated place."

Sometimes children are detained at Tijuana's airport, where they are flown in from other parts of Mexico or Latin America. In November, Mexico's immigration agency deported seven Salvadorans between the ages of 6 and 12. The children were accompanied by female smugglers posing as their relatives.

Other times, the children are caught by U.S. immigration agents who become suspicious when a child who is supposed to be a U.S. resident doesn't speak any English.

'My real name?' The smugglers come prepared with false birth certificates, Social Security cards and immunization records. But young children often end up blurting out the truth after a few questions, said Bruce Ward, the deputy area port director overseeing San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Tecate. Ward remembers one little girl, "just the cutest little thing," who might have been 4 years old.

"I took her aside and asked her what her name was," he said. "She asked me 'Mi nombre verdadero?' " (translated as "my real name?"). You get hardened to lot of other things, but when you see little kids being taken advantage of it kind of gets to you."

When children from countries other than Mexico are stopped at the ports of entry, they are usually held in the United States and given an immigration hearing. But most Mexican children are sent straight home.

INS officials in the San Ysidro area sometimes locate the children's families. When that fails, the kids are turned over to the Mexican Consulate's office. In about a quarter of the cases, the Mexican consulate tracks down family members, said Gilberto Luna, a consulate official in San Diego.

The remaining children are turned over to Mexican immigration officials. The older kids are sent to Tijuana shelters that serve homeless teen-agers. Children 13 and under are usually sent to the child protective agency's shelters in Mexicali and Tijuana, where deported children now make up about 20 percent of the 1,000 children housed each year.

Tracking the children's families can be a painstaking process.

"If you are talking about children who are 3 years old or so, then they will say they live in the 'white house' or the 'large house with the chickens,' " said Varela, the child protective agency's general director.

Baja California agency workers use maps and other descriptions to help young children locate the communities -- or at least the states -- they came from.

Photos of the children are often posted in state welfare offices and local newspapers, and agency workers sometimes travel to smaller villages and knock on doors. In especially difficult cases, they broadcast the children's faces on national television.

"We do that about once a month, and usually someone calls," said Verónica Márquez, Baja's assistant attorney general in Tijuana overseeing child and family matters. Márquez said that so far, all the children have been placed with family members.

Often the children are sent home by plane, accompanied by an agency worker. But the agency also tries to place children with nearby relatives, as they did in the case of María Guadalupe Galarza, who had family in Tijuana.

María didn't want to talk about the long trip that had brought her to the border. While she waited for her aunt and uncle to pick her up, she sat in a corner at the state shelter, her long hair tied back in a ponytail.

Yes, she said, she missed her mother.

And yes, she missed her grandmother, whom she had been staying with in the Mexican state of Colima.

But all María wanted now was for things to get back to normal.

"I want to go back to school," she said, watching with a dazed expression as other children played in an open courtyard.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 16, 2001


Amnesty for illegal aliens had made this problem worse. If a family can get a child into the U. S. and that child is later granted amnesty despite entering the U. S. illegally, that child can bring in other family members.

-- K (, April 17, 2001.

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